With resolve aplenty, community mediators give peace a chance

June 20, 1995|By ELISE T. CHISOLM

At a city middle school, a fight takes place between two girls over a boy. A knife is wielded, but no one is hurt. Sent to the guidance office, the disputants opt for mediation. The school's student peer mediators step in right away, and the fight is settled with the conflict-resolution process.

From the Balkan war to the worsening of U.S.-Chinese relations, conflict resolution is needed. From our streets to family arguments, it is needed.

Conflict resolution, or peaceful negotiation, is as old as the ancient Roman courts. Now it's rejuvenated and spreading across the United States.

More than 25 universities offer graduate degrees in conflict resolution. Law schools teach it; and it is estimated that about 3,000 to 4,000 schools across the country are using some form of it as peer mediation.

The National Peace Foundation, for example, promotes peace-building and conflict resolution on every level -- from the community to national and international -- with the overall goal of peace. In Baltimore, activist Libby Rouse, an NPF board member, is developing plans to guide the public through by creating on-site educational pavilions of learning. They are similar to those seen at world's fairs, where conflict resolution can be demonstrated and explained to visitors.

At the state level, there's "Project Peace" in Indiana. A joint effort of the Indiana State Bar Association and schools, the project works with peer mediators to demonstrate that if we want peace, we must begin with children. The program has become very effective, and now Indiana wants to expand the vision to include the workplace.

Good news.

National surveys show that alternative dispute resolution has cut down on truancy, suspension and violence. Locally, the concept of peaceful mediation is working well and includes about 75 percent of Baltimore schools.

"We are training students in conflict mediation by focusing on developing a complete conflict resolution mentality," says Patrick Perriello, who, as coordinator for guidance services, directs conflict resolution programs for Baltimore City schools. "We have a trained support staff that teaches the peer trainees. It's great, and now we will try to involve more parents and the community in this concept."

To explain conflict resolution in school situations, the students involved in the quarrel must want to go to peer mediation. Then they meet with two fellow students who have been trained to listen and not take sides. Both parties are allowed to speak without interruption, then the mediators help broker the agreement between the two conflicting sides.

Sheila Davis is a guidance counselor at Garrison Middle School, which is located in a working-class neighborhood. She says conflict resolution is effective in her school after only the first year.

"We deal mostly with misplaced anger. A boy lost a grandparent and he took out his grief on all his classmates, and the teachers. He went to the intervention center in our school and got peer help," Ms. Davis says.

At Severna Park School, counselor Carole Leigh Jenesko is especially proud of conflict resolution and its success.

"Our program is only 3 years old and we have six counselors and 40 student mediators," she says, adding that students today have many more pressures with the influx of drugs, alcohol, violence and sexual issues. "This makes it harder for them to focus on schoolwork."

"We are in an upper-middle-class community," says Ms. Jenesko, "but violence and anger have no boundaries."

Then there's Friends School, a private Baltimore school, where the Quaker legacy has demonstrated peaceful solutions.

At Friends, Ian Morton, a third-grade mediator, explains that because of confidentiality he can't say much, but that mediating is hard work.

"You have to remember all the steps, but when it's over, it makes you feel very happy to help a fellow student," Ian says.

Diana R. McGraw, principal of the Friends' lower school, is also an enthusiast for conflict resolution.

"We've been active for five years training the mediators, and then they are watchful on the playgrounds and the classrooms. The program is working very well.

"Our main hope is that the children will internalize the process so that they will develop personal skills in their everyday life," says Ms. McGraw. "These children will spend their adult lives in the next millennium. Hope for peace lies with them."

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