Moving Students from Fistfights to Handshakes

MOSES S. KOCH

February 10, 1993|By MOSES S. KOCH

To reduce school violence, Baltimore City Councilman Tony Ambridge introduced in 1991 a resolution urging schools to adopt conflict-resolution programs. A few state and local governments have passed such measures, and Congress has been working on similar legislation.

Known also as ''conflict management,'' ''student mediation'' and ''dispute resolution,'' the process is student-operated, voluntary and non-adversarial -- without adult intervention and without institutional discipline. Its impressive results in elementary, middle and high schools can cost very little.

Sounds ideal? A workable solution to school fights involving no escalation, no injury, no cheering onlookers, no detention, no suspension.

Since 1989 the Sheppard Pratt Hospital Community Education Program has been helping schools and universities adopt conflict management into their every day operation, transforming hostile environments into nurturing communities.

The program focuses on training a cross-section of students as ''conflict managers,'' who then mediate the day-to-day disputes that chronically unnerve teachers and principals. Central to the program is the concept that mediators do not prescribe solutions. Rather, they guide the antagonists to negotiate their own solution.

Frequently ''trouble makers'' become dependable conflict managers. One such student at Harlem Park Middle School said, ''If this [mediation] gets them when they are young, they won't end up shooting each other.'' At Northwood Elementary School, three fifth-grade girls who had been feuding all year expressed similar sentiments. One of them said, ''We would fight each other and maybe one day kill each other. [But since mediation] we haven't fist-fighted for a long time.'' At that school aggressive and disruptive behavior dropped from 228 instances to 84 in the first year of the program.

Generally, an agreement that the antagonists themselves negotiate holds up because they have bought into the process. As a Northwood fifth-grader put it, ''Kids understand kids. They can help each other get it together better 'cause sometimes teachers don't understand where we're coming from.''

Her response reflects a major reason why the process works: The antagonists' perceive conflict managers as peers, not as authority figures, and as helpers rather than critics.

Usually the impetus for mediation originates with faculty members. After the school decides to adopt a program, a small core of teachers is then trained (14 to 16 hours) in mediation strategies. Subsequently, a team of three or four of those teachers trains the student mediators. Trainees are nominated by their peers.

A student may nominate a chronic trouble maker if the nominee is thought to have leadership qualities. Then a representative group is selected for training, aiming for an ethnic cross-section of the school population, and including some chronic trouble makers. At Mount Washington Elementary School nominees complete an application and undergo an interview.

Training is voluntary. Students chosen take a 15- to 20-hour training program that stresses communication skills, particularly listening and reflecting upon what has been said. They learn how to restrain bias and how to establish trust, credibility and cooperation, as a base for negotiating workable agreements.

Trained conflict managers usually work in pairs, on the playground, in the cafeteria and in the halls. When on duty, they wear an identifying symbol, normally a T-shirt emblazoned with ''Conflict Manager'' or ''Mediator.''

At the outset of a mediation, the conflict managers cite four ground rules to be agreed to before negotiation can proceed: Tell the truth. Do not interrupt. No name calling. Work on the problem. Then one of the disputants tells what happened, followed by the other's version. Conflict managers may ask questions to clarify matters, but do not take sides or make judgments. Gradually the antagonists are led to suggest solutions. Usually realistic agreements are reached in 10 or 15 minutes, although in senior high schools agreements usually take longer.

The mediation concludes with the disputants signing an agreement.

Costs? Obviously cost is a central issue. A conflict-management program requires at least a quarter-time or half-time mentor. Some schools, including Mount Washington Elementary, have successfully used a parent or retired teacher as a volunteer mentor.

The mentor oversees all aspects of the program, which include orienting students, parents, faculty and staff; selecting and assigning mediators; arranging for and coordinating student training; developing and maintaining duty schedules for mediators; assessing the quality of each mediator; conducting upgrade training; initiating and conducting ''next generation'' training of new mediators; keeping faculty informed and soliciting faculty response, and evaluating the program.

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