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Excerpted from Chapter 1: Mediating Conflicts Involving Prejudice in The School Mediator's Field Guide: Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges by Richard Cohen


How Mediation Can Help

Mediation has the potential to facilitate communication and heal relationships across even the largest chasms of misunderstanding and hostility. An implicit goal of every mediation session, regardless of the part prejudice plays in the dispute, is to help parties understand one another. Parties discuss issues like teasing, stolen property, or rumors, and simultaneously — and often despite themselves — they begin to listen to and tacitly respect one another.

For conflicts involving prejudice, the implicit goal of mutual understanding becomes primary. Mediation helps parties focus on how they feel and what they experienced; the facilitation of dialogue takes precedence over the formulation of concrete agreements. Statements such as: "I felt hurt and angry when you said that because I have had to deal with that kind of attitude my whole life" are the currency of the exchange. At a minimum, parties hear what the other has to say. Although occasionally one party may accuse another of "playing the race card," often parties come to understand and possibly even empathize with the experience of their supposed adversary.

One of the things that victims of prejudice and harassment want most, in addition to the behavior never happening again, is for the "perpetrator" to understand the impact of their behavior and apologize for their actions. When injured parties receive an acknowledgment of their suffering, they can begin to "close" the experience and move on with their lives. Mediation encourages this type of exchange.

It is also important to stress that, when it comes to prejudice, mediation can work in spite of the parties. This is one of the curious paradoxes in a process that strives to empower parties whenever possible. For even if the prejudiced party does not empathize with the aggrieved party, mediation weakens the two foundations of prejudice discussed above: misinformation and depersonalization. Parties in a mediation session participate in a shared, intimate experience. They have immediate and constructive contact with one another, contact that by its very nature can contradict stereotypes and replace misinformation with first-hand knowledge. Participation in the process, therefore, in itself represents a kind of victory. And this holds true even if the issues of prejudice are not openly identified or conceded. Let's look at another example:

Bob, a self-described "skinhead" and the leader of a small clique of his peers, was harassing another student named Paul. Paul was one of the only Jewish students in the rural high school they both attended. Bob would call Paul anti-Semitic names whenever he passed. The harassment became more disturbing when Bob and his friends began drawing swastikas and taping pictures of concentration camp victims on Paul's locker. Paul finally went to speak with the school disciplinarian about the situation. The disciplinarian spoke with each boy separately, and he punished Bob severely for his offensive behavior. He also referred them both to the school's peer mediation program.

During the mediation session that followed, Paul haltingly described his concerns while Bob looked away. The harassment had been going on for years in a variety of forms. When it was Bob's turn to speak, he claimed that Paul often smiled when they were teasing him. He thought that Paul didn't mind the teasing. Much later, in a private session, Bob admitted that he had been teased when he was younger and that this had upset him very much. Although Bob never let his guard down completely, in the end he agreed to stop bothering Paul. Both boys agreed to go their separate ways.

Ten days later the mediators received a letter from Paul saying how pleased he was with mediation. Bob and Bob's friends were not teasing him anymore, and Paul said that mediation was "the best thing I have ever experienced" to resolve this on-going problem.

As always, there is no guarantee that mediation will be effective in resolving a particular conflict. And having students participate in mediation should not imply that they will not receive appropriate consequences when they violate school rules. In situations like the one above, where Bob's harassment was explicit and even vicious, mediation may be utilized in addition to punitive disciplinary action taken by the administration. But as Paul's letter indicated, mediation can play an important role in helping students understand themselves and others, modify their behavior, and resolve conflicts involving prejudice. Mediation impresses upon parties the human consequences of their actions in a way that only the most psychologically defended can resist. People rarely walk away unchanged.