Conflict of great interest at HCC

Mediation center helps parties reach agreements

In its third year on the campus

Court system and police make referrals to agency

December 28, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Tu Van Trieu has seen a smooth transition since moving into new offices at Howard Community College's Instructional Lab Building, but she would like to see more conflict.

As director of the Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center at HCC, she would like more people to bring their issues to her door, where staff and volunteers can help parties reach agreements.

"We're starting, slowly, to get the word out there," Trieu said.

The center started a decade ago as an independent nonprofit organization spun off from the group Community Building in Howard County. But as it begins its third year since reorganizing as a department of the college, two staff members, Trieu and program director Charles Tracy, are finding it takes time to build a caseload.

Outreach programs have become an important part of the center's day-to-day activities, with partnerships involving the county police and the court system showing promise.

From July of last year to June, 71 cases were referred to the center by people seeking help for themselves or by the police, the court system, Columbia's village boards and other organizations, Trieu said. Nine of those cases went through mediation.

One initiative starting to pay off is an agreement with the Howard County Police Department. The center is asking officers to think of mediation when dealing with quality-of-life complaints such as barking dogs, noisy children, parking disputes and property lines.

"A lot of what we get called to are not police matters, so to speak," said Sgt. George Belleville, who coordinates the partnership between the police and the center. "We don't have the time and the resources to settle some of these, and they [mediation center workers] do."

The arrangement took a year to organize, and the department recently started training officers about the kinds of cases they should refer to the center. Soon, a video produced at HCC's television studio will be used to train police.

Belleville, who is also on the mediation center's board of directors, is optimistic that the program will help reduce the number of calls to police as officers become comfortable making referrals. "Generally," he said, "with those kind of intractable problems, you tend to get multiple calls." Each time, police feel it's their duty to respond.

The center is also working with the juvenile justice system to increase referrals. Center staff believe having the parties reach an agreement in property offenses, vandalism cases and minor assaults is more effective than punishing young offenders.

`Mediation first'

"So many of the cases are better dealt with in the community than in the justice system," Trieu said. "We want people to think of mediation first."

The center is one of 16 across the state that belong to the Maryland Association of Community Mediation Centers. Most of the centers focus on a model called community mediation, which involves nine steps and incorporates opinions from many people affected.

The center at HCC is the only one in the state that also offers victim-offender mediation, which involves conversations between victims of lesser crimes and the person who committed the offense.

Volunteer mediator Tom Balles of North Laurel was impressed with victim-offender mediation when he recently worked with teen-agers who had been fighting. He explained that once the parties agreed to participate, each side told what happened and how it affected them - practically and emotionally - under the guidance of two volunteer mediators.

There are ground rules about confidentiality, and respectful speaking and listening, Balles said, and "there are no threats, no blame. We try to keep each of the sides focused on their own experience."

The sessions also involved the brawlers' parents, and Balles said the discussions were powerful. "The offenders did understand there were consequences much greater than they had realized," he said.

"It's hard, especially in a family issue," said Harriet Bachman, a volunteer mediator from Columbia. "You've got long patterns and health issues and all kinds of issues. ... We have to pay attention to the fact we're not there as counselors or social workers trying to resolve long-term issues. They're in charge, and they know what's best."

Solutions are put in writing and can include monetary retribution and agreements about future behavior.

In the case Balles was working on, he said, "They came up with some very creative ways and, I think, very doable ways to act in the future."

Outreach efforts

Other outreach efforts by the center have focused on training people to resolve their conflicts. Center staff have operated workshops at several schools, including Patapsco Middle School and Deep Run Elementary School, and with community groups. They have also worked with students and staff at the college.

The center receives 80 percent of its funding from grants, with a large portion from the Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office. It receives some funding plus office space and institutional support from the college.

Administrators are finalizing plans to offer an associate's degree in mediation and conflict management, using the center as a source of practical experience.

Beyond that, said Ron Roberson, vice president of academic affairs, HCC is like many institutions in that it tends to be idealistic. The center "reminds us of our responsibility to work toward resolutions that are not only logical," he said, "but also ethical and moral."

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