Students Resolving Conflict

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Excerpted from Chapter 5: Program Design and Planning in Students Resolving Conflict: Peer Mediation in Schools by Richard Cohen


The Relationship Between Peer Mediation and Discipline

The first question to consider when defining the relationship between peer mediation and school discipline is: Which conflicts are "mediatable?" That is, when students get into conflicts, which will be deemed appropriate for mediation alone, which will require traditional disciplinary measures, and which will require a combination of both approaches? It is important to note at the outset that the overwhelming majority of student-student disputes result from incidents of gossiping, name-calling, poor sportsmanship, and boyfriend/girlfriend difficulties. These issues usually do not require disciplinary attention, and administrators in charge of discipline can refer these conflicts directly to mediation. Indeed, in the early stages of program development, the disciplinarian refers the majority of mediation cases.

Some issues clearly require a response from the school disciplinary system, however. If a conflict involves serious physical violence, racial or sexual harassment, weapons, or drugs in school, then appropriate consequences must be assigned swiftly and authoritatively.

The challenge rests inhandling cases in which it is unclear whether peer mediation, school discipline, or some combination of the two best serves students and the school. An example will illustrate this clearly:

Maryanne and Keisha have been good friends for three years. During study hall, Keisha confronted Maryanne and accused her of spreading rumors about her. Although a physical confrontation followed, a teacher was able to break the girls apart just after Keisha pushed Maryanne. No punches were thrown, and neither of the girls were hurt. Both were sent to the disciplinarian's office. This is the first time either of them has fought in school.

Determining how to handle conflicts like this one is a daily dilemma for disciplinarians. We can assume that the school's disciplinary code prohibits fighting and assigns some punishment for the first offense. In many schools, that punishment is either in-house or out-of-school suspension. But how should the disciplinary code be applied given the unique characteristics of this conflict? Should Maryanne, Keisha, or both girls be suspended for fighting on school property? Let's analyze the options.

If a disciplinary system isto deter students from breaking the rules, disciplinarians must apply it consistently, regardless of individual circumstances. Keisha did break school rules by pushing Maryanne. If the disciplinarian doesn't assign her the appropriate consequences, it sends a message to Keisha as well as to the entire student body that they can break school rules with impunity. From this perspective, then, it seems that Keisha, if not both girls, should be suspended.

Most disciplinarians, however, prefer not to suspend students unless it is absolutely necessary, and many factors suggest that suspension is not the best option for Maryanne and Keisha. First, they have never fought before, and so their behavior is not habitual and in need of correction. Second, their friendship increases the likelihood that they will be able to resolve their conflict by speaking directly with one another. And finally, Maryanne and Keisha were not engaged in a serious physical fight. They did not actually come to blows, and neither girl was hurt. Applying a strict interpretation of the disciplinary code in this situation might benefit neither the students nor the school. Sending them to peer mediation seems to be the best alternative.

This is a difficult situation would be handled in a variety of ways by different educators. But one distinction is essential to understand when considering how to respond to conflicts like this one: The issues in a conflict, and the actions students take in response to those issues, are distinct and require different interventions.

Even when students take actions that are prohibited and require a disciplinary response (such as fighting), the issues at the core of their conflicts are usually typical student concerns. Keisha may have physically assaulted her friend, but she did so because Maryanne allegedly spread rumors about her. Though suspending one or both of these girls may deter them from fighting, it will not resolve their concern about rumors. That issue is best resolved in a forum like peer mediation. Increasing numbers of schools therefore recommend mediation to help students resolve their conflicts in addition to giving them disciplinary consequences for their behavior. Most disputing students, no matter how heinous the actions in question, benefit by participating in mediation.

When Peer Mediation and School Discipline Overlap
Important logistical questions are raised whenever mediation and school discipline are combined. Determining how to integrate these two approaches causes debate among educators even within the same school. (One ancillary benefit of implementing a peer mediation program is that it motivates educators to analyze and streamline their approach to discipline.) In order to understand this, let's look at three routes that disciplinarians can use to refer students to mediation.

  1. Mediation Only
  2. Mediation then Discipline
  3. Discipline then Mediation

In the first option, the disciplinarian decides that the conflict in question does not require disciplinary action. Students can choose to go to the mediation program for assistance or return to class. This is the most direct referral route between the disciplinary system and the mediation program. If the students do not choose to go to mediation, the disciplinarian might do some informal mediating on his or her own before returning students to class.

In the second option, the disciplinarian recommends students attend mediation first, but requires that they return to meet with him or her afterwards. When the mediation process is concluded, the disciplinarian decides what action, if any, to take. The disciplinarian may take the outcome of the mediation session into consideration when making a determination.

In the third option, the disciplinarian meets with students first and assigns whatever consequences he or she deems necessary. Only after students have received their punishment — in some cases only after they have returned from suspension — are they required or invited to take advantage of the peer mediation process.

With eachof these three options, administrators make referrals to mediation without compromising the integrity of the disciplinary system. The first approach, "mediation only," is by far the most common; in many schools, every conflict except those involving weapons, drugs, or serious physical violence goes to peer mediation as a first resort.

The "mediation then discipline" option is more controversial for a number of reasons. One concerns whether students are told that the outcome of peer mediation will affect disciplinary consequences. Some administrators find it effective to use mediation as an incentive, informing students that if they work out an agreement in the mediation session, their punishment will be lessened. This motivates students to utilize and become invested in a process that they might not otherwise take seriously. Most disciplinarians, however, prefer to tell students that the outcome of peer mediation will have no effect upon their determination. They feel like such an effect would compromise the disciplinary system, and enable students to break the rules without facing the appropriate consequences. These administrators also fear that the former approach might lead students to create unsound agreements just to avoid being punished.

A second concern expressed about the "mediation then discipline" option is that it can make students confused and resentful about receiving punishment after they have worked hard in mediation to resolve their dispute. Some coordinators report that student parties misdirect their anger at the seemingly unfair system back at each other. Taken together, these concerns support the idea that whenever it is unclear if disciplinary action is required, disciplinarians should make no promises regarding peer mediation's effect upon their punishment. Most students will be able to resolve their dispute in the mediation session; as long as they perceive the disciplinarian's subsequent actions to be fair, facing consequences after receiving punishment will not threaten their resolution.

When it is certain that students will be receiving punishment for their actions, the third, "discipline then mediation" option is the best. These students are thereby encouraged to talk out their dispute even after they have been punished. If suspension is involved, the students can be asked to return to school during their suspension to attend the mediation session (at which point the number of days they are suspended can be reduced), or participate in mediation on their first day back to school. Many schools now include peer mediation as part of their formal re-entry process.