School looks to defuse tension

Annapolis High principal agrees to meet with staff in mediated sessions

Williams' leadership at issue

Superintendent expresses approval of decision

Anne Arundel

December 23, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Trying for a fresh start after months of controversy over her management style, Annapolis High School Principal Deborah Williams plans to put the tension between herself and her faculty into the hands of a Baltimore-based mediator.

The voluntary sessions will give teachers a chance to air concerns about what they see as a negative climate at the school and about Williams, who is seen by some as a bully and by others as a gutsy leader.

Some students, parents and teachers have criticized Williams in the media, at school board meetings and in letters to public officials. The conflict has distracted students and teachers and frustrated Williams during her first year as principal.

Mediation, in which a neutral person helps parties in a dispute communicate and reach a mutually satisfying agreement, has become increasingly popular in recent years. In Maryland, it has kept thousands of conflicts from becoming expensive and time-consuming lawsuits, state officials say.

Superintendent Eric J. Smith said he was heartened by Williams' decision to work with mediator Lauren Abramson, but he will not participate. "I think it's important that the school family really work on this issue," he said.

Abramson, executive director of the nonprofit Community Conferencing Center, said the sessions, which are to begin Jan. 5, will let participants speak directly to one another, understand how others have been affected by the conflict and find a solution.

"We really believe that people have the capacity to resolve their conflicts, if they're given the proper structure to do it in," said Abramson, an assistant professor of child psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University. "My role as the facilitator is to make sure nobody dominates. ... Everybody is assured that they will get a chance to speak their piece."

Mediation also could help eliminate misconceptions and rumors by gathering all of the players in the same room, she said.

Abramson has mediated conflicts within schools and between neighbors, organizations and businesses. Her center, which handles about 100 cases a year, was referred to Annapolis High by the state's Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office, a court-related agency that promotes mediation to resolve disputes.

Rachel Wohl, the agency's director, said she learned of the school's controversy through media reports and decided to contact the principal.

Williams, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, was receptive and agreed to hold "community conferences" mediated by Abramson, Wohl said.

At the first session, the mediator will explain the process to the teachers, who then can decide whether they want to participate in future 2 1/2 -hour sessions.

English teacher Lydia Smithers said she was not prepared to jump in with both feet.

"I think conflict resolution can be incredibly effective, and I've seen it be a joke," Smithers said. "I guess we have to figure out which one it's going to be."

But she added that she wishes the school would concentrate on crafting a consistent approach toward discipline and academic problems.

"I would rather be working on that than going to some conflict-resolution thing," she said. "I think when we make progress that's real - that's going to unite people, not sitting around and talking."

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