The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. III, 1/04

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The School Mediator's Field Guide:
Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges
by Richard Cohen
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Students Resolving Conflict:
Peer Mediation in Schools

by Richard Cohen
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Welcome to the January issue of The School Mediator.

This month's issue explores the concept of adultism and its relationship to both public education and peer mediation.

Please send along your thoughts; hearing from you is the best part of writing this newsletter.

Wishing you healthy and peaceful 2004,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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"The schools as presently constituted serve the interests of a society content to define education as a means of indoctrination and a way of teaching people to know their place." -Lewis Lapham (1)

Put yourself in this scenario, you adults reading this in your office chairs...

... We have gathered you all here because things are about to change in your lives.

Quit your jobs; put aside your other interests:

For the next 12 years, you are going to be attending school.

We have sorted you into groups according to your chronological age: 33 year olds, proceed to room 214 down the hall; 58 year olds, please stop whining and walk in single file to the cafeteria.

We have designed the curriculum. We know that it seems largely unrelated to your daily life, to your concerns and to your dreams. But that's just the way it is.

In fact, if you don't perform up to our expectations, learning what we decide you need to know, when we decide you need to know it, there will be consequences that could have lifelong implications.

One more thing: Misbehavior will not be tolerated. We would prefer you to be excited about all this, but if you can't muster enthusiasm, at least don't talk back.

Did we hear moaning? "This is not what you want to do!" you say?

What gave you the impression we are interested in what you want?...

An unpleasant scenario? Unquestionably.

But if we are honest, we have to acknowledge that this is how many young people experience school.

Our public education system, designed by adults, leaves little room for student input or student choice.

And increasingly, coercive tactics--zero tolerance policies, high stakes testing, threats of punishment, etc.--are employed both to get students to school, and to "inspire" them to do what educators want when they are there.

Sure, most young people acquiesce with only occasional complaints. But can we reasonably expect them to act differently when this is the only approach to education they have ever known?

And true too, many educators, by engaging their students, are able to actually inspire them. Students in these classrooms would freely choose to attend school.

Still, public education provides ample evidence of a form of mistreatment increasingly known as "adultism."

Adultism refers to "behaviors and attitudes that are based on the assumption that adults are better than young people, and entitled to act upon them without their agreement." (2) It is characterized by "disrespect towards the intelligence, judgment, emotional life, leadership, or physical being of young people." (3)

And adultism is so pervasive in our world that, like the fish who don't realize they live in water, most of us are simply unaware of it.

Consider a few obvious examples:

The stranger who touches a toddler without asking permission...

The parent who grabs her crying son's arm and drags him through a supermarket...

The merchant who suspiciously follows anyone under the age of twenty through his store...

The teacher who treats a student rudely...

All these actions, taken with impunity, demonstrate the kind of disrespect that young people regularly face.

Now I am not suggesting that 12 year olds go out and rent their own apartments. Young people expect, crave and depend upon the guidance, advice, structure, material support, and discipline that caring adults can provide.

Nor am I knocking the institution of public schools. Quite the contrary: Providing free public education is one of the finest impulses in our culture, and one that is essential to creating a just, prosperous and peaceful world.

My concern is that the dominant approach to public education demonstrates a gross lack of respect for and understanding of young people's ability to manage their own lives in an age-appropriate way. Students simply are given little choice about matters of consequence related to their education: what to learn, when to learn, who to learn with, where to learn, who should teach them, etc.

And young people are so much more capable of guiding their lives and their learning than we give them credit for.

This lack of self-determination in schools is perhaps the biggest reason why students respond so positively to peer mediation. By contrast, peer mediation is fundamentally concerned with showing respect for and giving power to young people.

In fact, peer mediation is characterized by a relatively benign set of questions that nevertheless seem almost revolutionary in the traditional school context. Questions like:

Do you want to be here and participate?
How can we spend this time in a way that is most productive for you?
What are your concerns, hopes and desires?
How do you feel today?
How do you understand your current life situation?
Is this process serving you?
What do you need to move forward?

As a society, we would do well to encourage educators to ask their students similar questions.

And respond seriously, and searchingly, to students' answers.

Please send your thoughts...

(Thanks to Margaret Pevac for her paper, David Leon for the article, and Rachel for talking me off the ledge.)

(1) "School Bells", by Lewis Lapham, in Harpers Magazine, August 2000, page 7-9.
(2) "A Key to Developing Positive Youth-Adult Relationships," by John Bell, at
(3) "Adultism is an 'ism' too," by Candice Swiderski and Stacey Palma, at

Follow the link below for more information about Adultism.

Information on Adultism

 About SMA
For almost twenty years, School Mediation Associates has been devoted to the application and promotion of mediation in schools. SMA's mission is to transform schools into safer, more caring, and more effective institutions. Our books and training programs have been utilized by tens of thousands of people around the world.

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