School-based Conflict Resolution Education and Peer Mediation Programs: The Western Justice Center Experience

Volume 18 No. 4

By

Conflict resolution and mediation training can provide opportunities for student leaders—including those who may lead others down questionable roads— to flourish and channel their skills in a positive direction.  At Western Justice Center (WJC), we work to promote conflict resolution education and peer mediation in schools.

For example, several years ago, WJC trained a Pasadena middle school teacher in conflict resolution education. WJC worked with the teacher to set up a peer mediation program at the Pasadena middle school in which he works. Recently, we met with him to help promote peer mediation to his colleagues at the middle school. Since the time that the mediation program had begun, much of the adult population at the school had changed. The goal of our meeting was to educate the new staff so that they would begin using the peer mediation program and recommend new students to be trained as mediators. 

When the teacher described to his colleagues the benefits that students receive as peer mediators, he cited one particular student as an example. Other teachers had described the student as  “challenging in class” before he went through the peer mediation training.  Our WJC staff were surprised that the teachers were referring to this student, as he had been one of the best middle school mediators we had trained. The student was really able to get down to the core of the conflict — the underlying interests and needs — which can be a difficult skill to master.  The other teachers could not believe the contrast between what had been a poorly-behaved student in class and the now mature and adept student mediator. They said that the peer mediation training transformed the boy in a positive way. 

This example illustrates that conflict resolution and mediation training can provide opportunities for student leaders of all types to flourish and channel their skills in a positive direction.  At WJC, we work to promote conflict resolution education and peer mediation in schools through several methods.  We train educators – including administrators, teachers, staff, security, police, and parents – and students in conflict resolution skills.  We then train teachers and school staff in the implementation of conflict resolution education in their schools and classrooms.  We have also aided in the creation of, and provided ongoing support for, peer mediation programs as well as facilitated school-wide dialogues on violence prevention and peacebuilding.  In working with students and educators, we see significant benefits to the schools but also appreciate the challenges they face.  

Beyond the Pasadena student’s individual experience, others we trained at the school reported that they really enjoyed peer mediation.  Some of the students expressed their thoughts:

·    “Mediation is a way for students to help others.  It helps us learn things that could essentially help us in the future.”

·    “Going through mediation was a great opportunity for my peers and [me].  I am very glad I could experience this process!”

·    “Peer mediation is a great thing; it builds better communities and people also.”   

Several staff at the same middle school reported that the student body as a whole showed marked improvement in behavior.  All students had received some conflict resolution training in their weekly advisory classes, while the mediators received at least 15 to 18 hours of training, the number of training hours the Association for Conflict Resolution recommends for middle school peer mediators.[1]  The school set up a peer mediation system that directs referrals to the trained teacher who then sets up mediations.  The program became so well-known and popular that students would come up to the teacher advising the program and request mediations before conflicts got out of control. 

The Case for Peer Mediation and Conflict Resolution Education in Schools

Why advocate for peer mediation and Conflict Resolution Education in schools?  For one thing, school campuses are not immune to the daily conflicts faced in all parts of the world.  Students have interpersonal conflicts with one another, such as the spreading of rumors and fights over identity issues.  Whether these conflicts occur on or off campus, they affect the school environment.  If dealt with in positive ways, conflicts can provide opportunities for learning and growth.  However, all too often, they are dealt with negatively, as people are not usually taught the skills to handle their conflicts in productive ways. 

Rather than dealing with conflicts through the traditional disciplinary system – where adults make the decisions, often focused on punishment, and impose them on the students – peer mediation programs offer a confidential and voluntary process in which impartial students facilitate communication and negotiation between other students to help them find solutions to their disputes.  Student leaders from diverse groups in their school are trained in conflict resolution skills and the mediation process so that they can guide fellow students to their own resolutions. 

It is important to include both traditional and non-traditional leaders (those who might lead others in questionable directions): These are the students who potentially have the most influence with their peers.  As non-traditional leaders go through the training and start mediating cases, they – like the Pasadena middle school student – are channeling their leadership skills in productive directions.

Providing general conflict resolution training for everyone on campus, another important part of our program, allows the skills to be spread throughout the school community.  This method provides participants with problem-solving skills, so that not only are they able to resolve their current issues, but they are also better equipped to handle problems that arise in the future.

To paint the picture of how conflict, when handled negatively, affects school campuses in the Los Angeles area, during the 2007-2008 school year, 1,841 public school students were expelled and 64,924 were suspended because of violence or drugs, according to the California Department of Education.[2]  In a youth risk behavior surveillance survey from 2009, 31 percent of Los Angeles high school students indicated that they had been involved in at least one physical fight in the past year; 12.9 percent indicated that they had been in at least one fight on a school campus.[3]  Because of feeling unsafe at or on the way to school, 8.1 percent of students in Los Angeles reported that they missed at least one day out of the last 30, compared to 5 percent nationwide.[4]  Conflicts between students are often handled with violence that keeps them from feeling connected to their schools and focused on learning.

Peer mediation and conflict resolution programs are one positive way to reduce the school violence that causes students to miss school.  In schools where peer mediation programs are used regularly, incidents of school violence – including fighting and verbal abuse – have been reduced by as much as 35 percent, according to the Community Mediation Foundation.[5]   Suspensions for fighting have decreased at schools with peer mediation programs by at least 45 percent.[6]  Additional research has shown that in peer mediation programs, 80 to 95 percent of mediated cases are successful, with 80 to 96 percent of the agreements still being followed when checked on up to two weeks after the mediations took place.[7]

Furthermore, conflict resolution education “produces a positive moral climate in school and reduces reliance on authoritarian approaches to conflict resolution; enables students to negotiate and mediate solutions and regulate their actions; and improves attendance and academic achievement through fewer suspensions, better peer relationships and a greater interest in learning.”[8]  These findings have been strengthened through further research, which has found that trained peer mediators are more inclined to help their peers with conflicts and have increased self esteem, better communication, and higher academic achievement.[9] Students who receive conflict resolution education also show reduced antisocial behaviors.[10] 

The Western Justice Center Experience

It is very important that student mediators and the adults who support them receive excellent, ongoing training, including opportunities to learn from one another. The training lessons designed by WJC draw on conflict resolution research and include the following topics:

·    Sources and dynamics of conflict

·    Approaches to conflict

·    Positions and underlying needs

·    Communication skills

·    Emotions and regulation strategies

·    Culture and identity

·    Power

·    The processes of peer mediation and dialogue facilitation

These topics provide a comprehensive approach to understanding and analyzing conflict.  We have also developed a roster of strong professional and community mediators who volunteer with our programs to coach students and educators as they practice mediation skills and scenarios.  In fact, reaching out to local organizations or schools that provide peer mediation services and offering one’s expertise through coaching educators and students in mediations is a beneficial way for professional and community mediators to support such programs. 

We recommend that students co-mediate with one another in order to bolster each other’s strengths and model collaboration for the disputants.  Our approach – similar to most if not all peer mediation programs – requires an adult trained in peer mediation to be present when a mediation is occuring to provide any support, as necessary.

Researchers from the California State University Northridge Sociology Department evaluated our training at the Pasadena middle school as well as a couple of elementary schools.  In focus groups, the middle school staff felt that after the implementation of the program there was significantly less violence due to conflict than there had been before the training. In addition, there were fewer incident reports that had to be referred to the administration. Students trained as mediators felt they increased their skills in active listening and teamwork. In addition, the students noticed they used their mediation skills with their families and friends. Finally, the parents of the student mediators felt that the training had a significant impact on their child’s willingness to speak out against bullying and to listen carefully.

At one of the elementary schools also evaluated by the researchers – where all students in a single class received peer mediation training – after the training, 17 percent more students reported they listen to others when in disagreements, and 11 percent more said that they find solutions that make everyone happy.  Compared to the time before their school had received the training, 16 percent more elementary school students felt that it is important to talk without judging in order to resolve a conflict in a positive way.  In addition, 17 percent more said students try to help solve disagreements when they occur.

The dialogues that we have facilitated for other schools give students the opportunity to voice their thoughts, concerns, and suggestions to address different issues of conflict faced on their campuses.  These sessions often provide students with the only opportunity they have to share their opinions and perspectives on these conflicts with one another and the adults at the schools they attend.  At these events, the most common comment from participating students is that they appreciate the opportunity to express feelings and share opinions, thoughts and ideas. 

Since 2009, we have provided five Train-the-Trainers Conflict Resolution Education courses to groups of educators.  Participants who complete the 22- to 30-hour training are able to create and build upon conflict resolution programs at their schools, including peer mediation programs. At least 10 schools at which Train-the-Trainers participants currently work have functioning conflict resolution and peer mediation programs. 

Every year since 2003, we also have held the WJC Peer Mediation Invitational, to celebrate and build the skills of Los Angeles-area peer mediators and the adults who support them.  At this annual event, students get to visit the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, meet a sitting judge, participate in age-appropriate mediation role-plays, and receive recognition and encouragement for their leadership. 

The WJC Peer Mediation Invitational offers peer mediators the opportunity to hone their skills while working with peer mediators from other schools and receiving coaching from professional and community mediators.  This event provides students with a unique opportunity to obtain more training, receive support, encouragement, and ideas from other student mediators and adult supporters, and see how their skills can be useful in the professional world.  It also provides a space for adult coordinators to network and learn from one another.  These school advisors participate in dialogues about advancing conflict resolution education.  The sessions offer opportunities for the advisors to discuss ways to improve their individual school’s conflict resolution programs and advance the field as a whole.

Learning from Experience

In the diverse environment of Los Angeles-area public schools, it is important to stress to students and educators learning conflict resolution skills that conflict can result from different ways of viewing the world and communicating with one another.  Through our training, we focus on how culture and identity can interplay with conflict and discuss how it is important to be mindful of our own assumptions about how people think and communicate.  We have seen the need for cultural competence in peer mediation and conflict resolution programs exhibit itself several times, and concluded that this is something that both students and the adults working with them – including us – need to mindfully reflect upon.

For example, we helped a school advisor oversee a mediation between two groups of Latino students; one composed of students who had been born in the area and the other of students who had recently immigrated. The first group spoke English, while the second spoke Spanish. One of the co-mediators and the school advisor spoke Spanish. Even though the mediator and advisor translated for the students, the written materials – agreement to mediate, contract, and surveys – were only in English. Because of the lack of written translation, combined with the issue of different cultural values for the role a student is supposed to play in school with an adult present – especially when there is conflict occuring – the immigrant students were at a disadvantage in the mediation. We, as the adults advising and coordinating the program, had to reflect on the experience and learn from it. Although we had always translated marketing and other materials targeted toward parents, from this point on, we made sure mediation materials were translated. We also thought more strategically about what type of assistance monolingual Spanish-speaking students would need in future cases in order to balance the situation. 

Adults must also work with students to be mindful of their mediation practice. In another case we observed between two students of different ethnicities – for the most part regarding issues any two students may have faced with one another – a negative comment was made by one to the other regarding the music to which he and “people like him” listened. Neither of the student mediators picked up on the comment, but it seemed to point to prejudice the one student had about people of the other’s ethnicity. It could very well have been a moment to build more understanding for both students, as well as for the mediators, if it had been discussed. This example points to the importance of listening for such information and addressing it during mediation. However, as these moments can be missed – especially when mediators are new to practicing their craft – it points to the necessity of reflecting upon the cases one has mediated in order to become more skilled for future cases. 

Sometimes students realize the importance that race and other identity factors play in conflict and the role that mediation can take in addressing them, even when adults do not. We trained a group of high-school peer mediators at a school where the principal did not support their skill and talent as leaders of conflict resolution. The principal was known to say that students were not able to resolve their own conflicts. During a training, the students related an incident of prejudice and stereotyping that occurred between two students in a class on campus that was causing ripples throughout the school. The principal’s reaction was to tell his student body to forget about the situation and instead focus on their learning.  The peer mediators realized that this was not at all an effective way to deal with the situation – the student body was not able to focus on academics because they were so upset about the situation. The peer mediators decided to create a mock mediation around the incident, and were able to illustrate how mediation – if it had been supported at the school – could have effectively dealt with the situation between the two students through creating a space for a dialogue oriented toward greater understanding and stronger relationships. Unfortunately, the principal did not experience the mock mediation, and was, therefore, unable to learn from his students’ more effective ways of responding to such incidents.

These situations also speak to the need to have a diverse group of mediators who have influence with students from diverse identity groups. With situations where the conflict has to do with an “ism,” such as racism or sexism, it can be important for the mediators to reflect the identities of the students they are mediating. Being sensitive to the identities of the disputants aids in creating trust in the process and negating any suspicion of bias.  

Challenges to Operating School-Based Programs

While the overall outcomes of the work that we have done with schools are positive, there have been challenges.  School structures, education mandates, and deep funding cuts can make it difficult to implement programs on campuses.  For instance, determining best times to provide training and mediations is difficult due to tight and varied schedules of classes and other student activities, both during and after school. 

Furthermore, it is hard to sustain programs at schools where there are frequent staffing changes.  For this reason, schools sometimes contract outside organizations to run programs on their campus.  Organizations must have large program staffs dedicated to working in schools in order to run such programs effectively. When an organization working with a school, such as ours, has a small program staff, the intent must be to provide the skills to educators to train students and run programs if they are to be at all effective.  For this reason, our organization has moved more toward the model of training educators.  However, trained staff are often let go or change schools, and remaining staff have more responsibility and tighter schedules with which to contend. 

The worst situation occurs when students have been trained and are excited, ready, and skilled to help their peers but are not given the opportunity to do so.  It has been our experience that students seem to best internalize conflict resolution concepts and skills when they get to help their peers resolve conflicts.  Once they see how powerful the conflict resolution analysis and communication tools they have learned can be, they begin to incorporate them into the way they handle their own conflicts.  If they never or rarely get the chance to do so, they sometimes do not realize the benefit of using the skills themselves.  The school also loses out on an opportunity to create a safer and more accepting environment through utilizing the amazing resource of their own student body. 

Peer mediation by itself provides a stand-alone approach to conflict resolution in schools, as only the small group of mediators is trained. School-wide approaches are considerably more effective.  In them, all parts of the school community receive training – the administration, teachers, staff, students, and even parents.  In this type of approach, the conflict resolution system of the school allows for mediation and facilitation of disputes among all of these parties.  Where conflict resolution concepts and skills are incorporated directly into the curriculum of other subjects, programs are especially effective.[11]  However, these programs require a much more extensive funding and time commitment. 

Moving Forward

Conflict resolution education provides one method for building safe and inclusive schools. One way that conflict resolution education programs can move toward this goal is to collaborate with other, related programs that are working for the same objectives.  For instance, WJC collaborates with Encompass, a human relations organization dedicated to reducing prejudice and intergroup conflict among teens.  Encompass uses a unique approach that combines participation in the arts with facilitated discussion. One of their programs uses teenage actors trained in improvisational theater to help educators learn and practice how to intervene in bias-related student conflicts.

At the WJC Peer Mediation Invitational this year, Encompass brought this group of student actors and conducted a session about peer mediation using improvisational theater.  The participants enjoyed revisiting the “dos” and “don’ts” of peer mediation by engaging in hilarious improvised scenes of mediations gone terribly wrong. The most experienced peer mediators also got an opportunity to hone their skills by practicing on the trained actors. This allowed for much more realistic mock mediation sessions.

The collaboration between our organization and Encompass greatly enhanced the learning of the students and adults present at the Invitational in an enjoyable way.  We will continue to work together to see how our two approaches – conflict resolution education and human relations with an arts focus – can complement one another and add to the learning experience of each.

Furthermore, the use of social-networking technology when working with young people is practically mandatory in current times.  WJC would like to help young people focused on peacebuilding connect virtually and learn from one another. Such a virtual program would expand the impact that conflict resolution education and related programs can have on schools and the students they serve.

The dialogues and mediations that have been implemented at the schools with the help of WJC have been successful.  They allow a forum for the trained students to lead their peers in building peace. A high-school student trained by us, who exhibited remarkable mediation skill for his age, let us know that his experience with being a peer mediator aided him in attending college.  He had mentioned his experience in his financial aid application, and he was later requested to provide two more pages specifically on peer mediation and how it benefitted him. By return mail he was informed that he was being awarded a substantial scholarship. Once, when being interviewed about peer mediation, he related that one of the main reasons it is so impactful on people is that it helps maintain and build strong relationships. He discussed how, in some cases he mediated, if the school didn’t have a peer mediation program or the people hadn’t participated, they would have lost a friend. 

Peer mediation and conflict resolution education provide an effective model for reducing violent and negative conflict at schools – led by students.  They offer important life and leadership skills that aid students in succeeding both socially and academically at school and throughout their entire lives.  If supported and used, these programs not only provide schools with opportunities to transform the overall climate of a campus, but also teach its students – and its adults – the skills they need in order to live, grow, and learn with and from one another. As our trained Pasadena teacher said, “Peer mediation is a great opportunity for students to learn life-long skills as well as provide a needed service that allows students to resolve conflicts.”


 

[1] The Association for Conflict Resolution, Recommended Standards for School-Based Peer Mediation Programs (2007), http://www.acrnet.org.

[2] Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles, Fact Sheet: School Violence (2009), http://www.vpcgla.org/uploads/School_Violence_VPC2009.pdf.

[3] Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2009, 59 Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report 48, 54 (July 4, 2010).

[4] Id. at 55-56. 

[5] See Community Mediation Foundation (2011), http://northalabama.bbb.org/cmf.

[6] Joel Frederickson & Geoffrey Maruyama, Peer Mediation Programs: Benefits and Key Elements, 4 Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement Research/Practice Newsletter (Fall 1996), http://www.cehd.umn.edu/carei/publications/documents/PeerMediation.pdf .

[7] Russell Skiba & Reece Peterson, Creating a Positive Climate: Peer Mediation, What Works in Preventing School Violence, Safe & Responsive Schools (2000), http://www.indiana.edu/~safeschl/PeerMediation.pdf.

[8] Sandra V. Sandy, Sharon Bailey & Venetta Sloane-Akwara, Impact on Students: Conflict Resolution Education’s Proven Benefits for Students 27, in Does it Work? The Case for Conflict Resolution Education in our Nation’s Schools (Tricia Jones & Daniel Kmitta eds. 2000).

[9] Skiba & Reece, supra note 7; Frederickson & Maruyama, supra note 6.

[10] Wendy M. Garrard & Mark W. Lipsey, Conflict Resolution Education and Antisocial Behavior in U.S. Schools: A Meta-Analysis, 25 Conflict Resol. Q. 9 (2007).

[11] Heather E. Prichard, Conflict Resolution Education in the United States, in Jones & Kmitta, supra note 8 at 9.

Emily Linnemeier is a Program Director at Western Justice Center, where she focuses on collaborating with public schools to create secondary and elementary school conflict resolution education programs.  She has designed and implemented conflict resolution education training materials with her colleagues, advised on peer mediations and referral systems, and designed and implemented dialogues on school campuses.  She can be reached at emily@westernjustice.org or http://www.westernjustice.org.

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