Students Resolving Conflict

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Excerpted from Chapter 7: Mediating Cases in Students Resolving Conflict: Peer Mediation in Schools by Richard Cohen


Should Coordinators Sit-In on Student Peer Mediation Sessions?

When all parties are together in the room, the formal session begins under the leadership of the student mediators. The important question now is: Where should the coordinator go? Should you sit in on the sessions, or should you leave the room altogether? School-based mediation programs have contrasting policies in this regard, and mediators and coordinators will usually argue for the approach with which they are familiar. Compelling arguments support both perspectives.

In many programs, the coordinators leaves students alone in the mediation room. These coordinators assert that peer mediation is first and foremost a student program, and having adults in the room compromises its effectiveness. Student mediators in these schools agree, claiming that their peers feel more comfortable and are more likely to invest themselves in the process if no adults are present. Not sitting in on the session has some logistical advantages as well. The coordinator can get other work accomplished during the session. And because you are not tied to a single session, the program can mediate several sessions simultaneously (with the coordinator available to assist all the mediators if they need help).

In contrast, some schools feel it is essential that an adult be in the room to supervise mediation sessions. They cite a number of reasons for this, the most compelling of which is that when adults observe the sessions, they are able to critique the mediators' performance and help them improve their skills. In addition, coordinators who observe a session can offer assistance and guidance to mediators while it is underway. If the mediators make a serious mistake, or if they are stuck, the coordinator can intervene to ensure that the process runs smoothly. Some schools' concerns for the safety of students (and legal liability) lead them to require that the coordinator be the room. If coordinators screen cases appropriately, however, this should not be an issue. (See the appendices for a discussion of legal liability.)

In the end, the best approach is one that is flexible and enables the coordinator to consider the dynamics of each case. In the majority of student disputes, and especially after mediators have gained experience, the coordinator's presence is unnecessary if not a hindrance. Student mediators can always take a break and meet with the coordinator if they need assistance. But until you have confidence in your mediators, and in those cases where it seems important to have an adult in the room, coordinators should not hesitate to sit in on sessions.{1}

When you do decide to sit in on a session — either to observe and assist unpracticed mediators or to supervise difficult cases — you must do a number of things. Let the parties know that you will be observing. There is no need to overemphasize this fact, just mention that you will be at your desk or you will be working on the other side of the office. Be as inconspicuous as possible. Sit as far away from the session as you can, and make sure that you are behind the line of sight of the parties. Some coordinators sit in a corner at their desks with their backs to the session. Others will sit on the opposite side of a partition.

A final and most important recommendation for the coordinator sitting in on sessions is to keep interruptions to a minimum. Each time you intervene, you chip away at mediators' credibility and confidence. Student mediators are far from perfect, and chances are good that they will make mistakes. But the process of mediating involves feeling stuck and having to think on your feet, and there is no way to learn this without experiencing it. Only intervene when the mediators ask for help, or when you perceive them to be making a mistake that jeopardizes the entire process. Or, as one trainers bluntly puts it to coordinators: "your most important job while supervising sessions is to keep your mouth shut!"

Remember as well that if you do not sit in on the sessions, you should nevertheless remain accessible in case the mediators need your assistance. They may need advice to help them create a strategy to move the process forward. They may need you to locate an additional party and bring him or her to the session. They may need a suggestion regarding where to refer student parties for more help.{2} If for some reason you will not be accessible when mediation sessions are underway, arrange for another trained adult to be available. The last way coordinators can help mediators during the session is to facilitate the use of private sessions. One unintentional yet beneficial aspect of the mediation process occurs when coordinators wait with one party while the mediators hold a private session with the other. During these breaks, you can often help parties reflect upon what is happening in the session in a way that moves the process forward.

{1} Some programs strike a balance by requiring that each student mediator be observed by a trained adult during their first three real mediations, after which they mediate without an adult in the room.

{2} Though most referrals are made with the assistance of the coordinator, programs should always inform peer mediators about the other services that are available to help students within the school and community. These include school counselors, groups designed to prevent suicide or substance abuse, mentor programs, and even programs that help students with school work or assist them in finding jobs.