Making Peer Mediation a Part of Campus Life
Teen skirmishes over rumors, perceived put-downs, and he-said-she-said arguments might seem inconsequential to adults, but to kids they can be major distractions. Mediation by peers can clear up misunderstandings quickly and improve school climate. Included: Ed World visits a peer mediation conference.
In schools, student conflicts can simmer for days. Starting with a glance, a whisper, or an innuendo, and seasoned with rumors, such conflicts can boil over into clique showdowns, shouting matches, threats, or worse.
No one understands the daily stresses and slights of teen life better than other teens. Many administrators have found that intervention by trained peer mediators can go a long way toward preventing such disputes from escalating, and help create a more tranquil school environment.
During peer mediations, a student or pair of students listens to other students present their sides of a disagreement and then helps them to find common ground. Many of the disputes have to do with rumors or misunderstandings between friends. In some cases, students have to shake hands or sign a note indicating they agree with the settlement. Students usually have to apply and/or are recommended to be mediators, and must participate in several hours of training.
To learn more about conflict origins, how to be better mediators, and how to promote mediation in their schools, more than 100 Connecticut peer mediators in fifth through 12th grades recently attended the Peace by Peacebuilding Peer Mediation Conference at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. The conference was sponsored by The Governor's Prevention Partnership, an organization committed to reducing drug and alcohol abuse and violence among teens and adults.
Students chose two seminars to attend during the day; several of the workshops were prepared and conducted by members of peer mediation teams. Every student Education World asked at the conference about his or her reason for being a peer mediator gave the same answer: to help people.
One of the presenters, Evan, a seventh grader at Kelly Middle School in Norwich, said he liked the exchange of ideas at the conference. "It's cool to learn new things and already I'm thinking about great ideas to bring back." Evan said he became a peer mediator because, "I thought it would be a cool idea, to help friends who have fights a lot, and argue about stuff, like two guys who like the same girl."
"I like how nobody loses, everybody wins," said Meagan, a seventh grader from Lisbon Central School in Lisbon, in describing why she enjoys mediating. "No one is blamed for the situation. And if we see a problem, we like to ask people, 'Why don't you go to mediation?'"
"I enjoy it because I'm able to help kids my own age with problems," said Stephanie, a seventh grader at Francis Walsh Intermediate School in Branford. "I like helping my friends; it's inspiring."
Added fellow mediator, a seventh grader named Sayali, "After you help a few people with their problems, you feel good about yourself."
BECOMING BETTER MEDIATORS
Adult speakers and presenters included Connecticut's former state attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, who praised the peer mediators' work and urged them to be role models in their schools and communities.
"My job is to do what you do; bring people together and try to avoid fights that are emotionally draining and costly," Blumenthal told students before the conference opened. "We try to bring them together so they agree, or agree to disagree."
"If you can avoid the physical violence and bring people together, you have accomplished what, from the beginning of time, mankind has considered a noble end," he continued. "The Bible says, 'Blessed are the peacemakers.' You have a great opportunity to be a model for people; to lead by example. The example people set is the most important lesson."
Leigh Jones-Bamman, then-senior program coordinator of The Governor's Prevention Partnership, stressed to students the importance of using and teaching mediation techniques. "You might see people in the community who are not as skilled at mediating as you are; people who are sending people not much older than you to war," Jones-Bamman said. "And you might ask yourself what difference can I make? I believe everyone can make a difference. Our task is to eliminate violence and war. Everything is changing and everything is possible. Peace is created one step at a time."
LEARNING BY DOING
Interactive Educational Theater members Maggie (Magda Skomal) and Dan (Dan Kelly) warmed up students for their workshops by presenting skits about avoiding and dealing with hurtful and intimidating behavior and understanding societal expectations for boys' and girls' behavior.
Every day in school, issues arise that can make students angry, even angry enough to start a fight; peer mediators can help their classmates find better solutions to those conflicts, Dan said.
In one skit, Maggie tripped and spilled "pizza" all over Dan, messing up his clothes and ruining his lunch. "You might be angry enough to hit someone, but you can't," Dan told students. Then turning to Blumenthal, he asked, "Mr. Attorney General -- if I hit her, what's that called?"
"Assault," Blumenthal replied.
Students brainstormed other potential approaches to defusing the situation: talking about the incident, working it out, and having Maggie buy Dan another "lunch."
A NEW WAY TO VIEW BULLYING
The audience also generated suggestions for dealing with bullies: Walk away. Avoid the person. Stay in a group. Tell a teacher.
"Sixty percent of people identified as bullies wind up in court by age 24," Dan told the students. "Stopping bullies before they do something worse can help them."
Students also learned new ways to view bullies or "mean kids" in the workshop "Peer Mediating and Bullying," conducted by Jo Ann Freiberg, who represented Operation Respect, CT, Inc. Freiberg told students that peer mediation rarely works with bullies, because of the "power imbalance" between the bully and the victim.
In her workshops, Freiberg said she also urges people not to use the term bully, because it is intimidating and alienating; she encouraged students to think of ways to help mean kids and victims. That can include helping quiet, socially awkward students make friends and be less isolated, and helping mean kids feel competent in an area other than intimidation, and if the behavior persists, isolating them from others in the school.
Although mediation might not be the best remedy for bullying, as school leaders, peer mediators play a key role in reporting mean behavior, Freiberg continued. "We have to break the code of silence; too many people believe if they say something, the abuse will be worse."
"If you see bullying, you should intervene or tell someone," Freiberg added. "Adults have to know how to deal with kids 'telling.' We have to increase the number of people intervening. There are no innocent bystanders. We have to let people know being mean is not normal."
Seventh grader Shayna of Wintergreen Interdistrict Magnet School in Hamden, said the session gave her a different perspective.
"This gave me a new definition of bullying; now I have to look at bullies, too," she said.
SPREADING THE WORD
Another challenge for peer mediators is getting the word out about the program in their schools. Often, they are not doing as many mediations as they would like, some student mediators said.
In a workshop presented by members of the Kelly Middle School peer mediation team from Norwich, students listed ideas to promote their schools' programs.
They first discussed why students don't use peer mediation more often: students think its stupid, they are embarrassed, they don't want to admit they have a problem, they think it won't help, a lot don't know about it, it's not cool, or they think conversations will be spread around the school.
Students suggested promoting peer mediation by talking about it during morning announcements, visiting classes, putting up posters, talking with teachers, and filming a mock mediation to show students. They also role-played situations in which students were encouraged to seek help from peer mediators.
MATURITY AND COMMITMENT
Some faculty members said that after establishing peer mediation programs, they see a change in students' attitudes and school climate. Kelly Middle School has had a peer mediation program since 1996. The program is so successful, its members have conducted peer mediation workshops throughout New England, many of them with adults.
The students are very self-sufficient. "The kids run the program; it doesn't take a lot of oversight on my part," said Ron Sefchik, a guidance counselor and the program's advisor. For example, Jessica, an eighth grader, is responsible for scheduling the mediations and keeping track of students who use mediation. "You know you are helping someone, because you always solve the problem if you do it correctly," she said.
Francis Walsh Intermediate School, a fifth through eighth grade school, has had a peer mediation program for 12 years; this was the group's second time attending the conference. Members of the Walsh team gave a presentation on how certain language inhibits mediations.
Recently, administrators at Walsh have noticed a decrease in the number of mediations, said Heather Grattin, a guidance counselor and, along with special education teacher Dianne Dadio, one of the program's advisors. Staff members see the decrease as a byproduct of a shift in school climate.
"Kids know about it, and we have a positive school climate," said Grattin. Added Dadio, "I think peer mediation, in conjunction with a character education program, has helped the school climate."
Still, spats occur. Some of the more common reasons for mediation at Walsh are conflicts that have to do with misunderstandings, rumors, and students being left out of groups, said Hannah, an eighth grader. "You really have to understand how everyone feels when you do it."
Conferences like this one, which gather mediators and their advisors from across the state, help motivate students to try harder and to try new approaches. Gail Acosta, a guidance counselor at Lisbon Central School in Lisbon, said she enjoyed the conference because, "We get to see what is going on in other places."