The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. VI, 5/07

in this issue

Say Nothing For Peace

Richard Cohen Interested in Working Abroad in 2008

Responses to "A Change of Seasons"

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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 May/June issue of the The School Mediator. This is the final issue for the 2006-2007 school year.

This month's issue explores the importance of not talking when one is mediating.

Please send along your thoughts and experiences. The best part of writing this newsletter is hearing from you.

Have a wonderful summer, and wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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  • Say Nothing For Peace

  • Have you ever observed mediators say something counterproductive, something that makes it more difficult for parties to resolve their conflict?

    Perhaps they ask an unhelpful question, or restate something in an inflammatory way, or inadvertently give their opinion.

    Sometimes, however, the problem is not what the mediators have said.

    It is that they have said anything at all.

    Often the most powerful intervention a mediator can make is to sit attentively and say nothing.

    Picture this: It is 20 minutes into a peer mediation session. The mediators have said their opening statement, and the two 14-year-old parties, Gladys and Eva, have each presented their initial stories.

    Although the girls have not addressed each other directly (except to disagree or roll their eyes), the angry tenor of the conversation has subsided. The atmosphere somehow feels softer. There is more space between sentences.

    Then Gladys says in reference to Eva: " I never really understood why she stopped talking to me..."

    A pause.

    The opportunity for the Eva to respond directly to Gladys hangs in the room like a ripe fruit.

    What should the mediators say?

    Absolutely nothing, of course!

    Too often, however, inexperienced mediators squander such opportunities, filling silences that might be more constructively filled by the parties.

    Mediating is just as much about knowing when to keep one's mouth shut, as it is about knowing when--and how--to talk.

    Beginning mediators focus primarily on the latter, "talking" part, in particular on how to frame relevant and timely questions that move the process forward, and that are free of perceived bias.

    This is no surprise. It is hard for most of us to "talk like a mediator," and it requires practice.

    Inexperienced mediators also tend to feel like any "dead air" during a session is a sign of their incompetence. As a result, they sometimes speak to assuage their own anxiety as much as to help the parties.

    Certainly there are times when saying nothing will decrease parties' trust in the mediators and in the process, and thereby reduce the likelihood that they will take the risks necessary to make peace.

    And undeniably, parties' willingness to engage directly with one another often results, at least in part, from what mediators do say: the welcoming remarks that put them at ease; the open-ended questions that uncover significant yet unexpressed concerns; the paraphrasing that enables one party to appreciate the other's perspective.

    Still, one of the most useful things mediators can do is to bite their tongues and let the parties do the talking.

    When the time is right, the best mediators say nothing.

    Please share your thoughts and experiences... How do you teach your mediators about the importance of silence? We'd all like to hear from you.

  • Richard Cohen Interested in Working Abroad in 2008
  • Richard Cohen is hoping to work outside the United States for four months between July 2008 and January 2009. If you or your organization would benefit from having Richard's expertise close at hand, please follow the link below.

    More Info...

  • Responses to "A Change of Seasons"

  • We received many and varied responses to last month's newsletter about the current challenges facing the peer mediation movement in the US. Below are a handful of them...

    I have been training peer mediators for over ten years, and I am discouraged by what I see in my local school district.

    We had the opportunity/gift of a Safe and Drug Free Schools grant for three years. It provided millions of dollars for conflict resolution programming in our schools, K-12. Our efforts were very successful; we won awards.

    Then the money disappeared, and 9/11 followed...

    Our schools are worse off now than they were before the grant program: suspensions and expulsions are up, and our mayor insists on using scarce funds to put police in schools rather than implement peace programs. It seems the funds that were previously used for prevention now go to homeland security.

    We keep trying to provide peer mediation through community resources (working with a law school, for instance) but the schools rarely even have people on site to coordinate the program, which is absolutely crucial.

    It is so hard for me to watch all this.

    Anne Smiley
    Mediation Management Services
    Lansing, Michigan

    I want to concur as to the "dark days" of peer mediation, having conducted and implemented a program at an elementary school in the Valley Stream School District in New York.

    The club was operational for two years until the Principal retired. During that time there was a noticeable drop in the disciplinary problems in the lunch rooms (which was greatly appreciated by school personnel!). We had mediator caps in the school colors and a Peace sign donated by the PTA.

    I made a formal presentation to the school board to professionally implement the program in all of the schools in the district, yet the board did not wish to fund it.

    I have been active in the mediation field for many years (serving as vice-chair of the Mediation Committee of the American Bar Association and on the Board of Directors of the New York State Dispute Resolution Association). I strongly believe that peer mediation needs to be a mandatory subject in all elementary, middle and high schools throughout the USA and indeed world wide

    If we have any hope of creating a world with less violent conflict, it is the youth of the world who must learn to resolve conflict in a peaceful and respectful way. Granted, this is a hard concept to sell when our own federal government does the opposite, promoting war and pre-emptive attack as opposed to the development of meaningful dialogue.

    Hopefully some of the powers-that-be will see the light...

    Marty Gofberg J.D.
    Equitable Solutions = Quality
    Malverne, New York

    I am the mediation coordinator for the second largest school district in San Antonio, Texas. We have partnered with our local dispute resolution center, The Bexar County Dispute Resolution Center, and share resources, training efforts and evaluation materials.

    Our peer mediation efforts have been more successful every year because we work the program into the Peer Assistance and Leadership (PAL) Program in every middle and high school. Peer mediation has become part of the fabric of a successful youth development program, and it is central to a community partnership that benefits our school district and the wider community.

    I also have numerous peer mediation teams operating in our elementary after-school programs. We come for an hour, twice a week, to work with students who normally are not exposed to youth development activities such as peer mediation. We do this in conjunction with the San Antonio Bar Foundation (which provides t-shirts and other incentives).

    In addition, our peer mediators are recognized by the school board; the superintendent personally gives top mediators certificates and medals; mediators participate in various peace art contests; they write essays for essay contests; they put on peer mediation plays for faculty members; and often times, they serve as ambassadors for school events. We also publish several peer mediation newsletters which highlight important contributions that the peer mediation program has made to our very large and ever growing school district.

    I write all of this not to brag, but to let others know that peer mediation can strengthen existing programs and that there are many opportunities to recognize the talents of our students. Now more than ever, students want to be part of the solution, not the problem.

    Mary Alice Smallbone
    NEISD Mediation Coordinator
    San Antonio, Texas

    I continue to read your newsletter with great interest.

    Your last newsletter highlights the same problem faced by Canadian schools' peer mediation programs-no support. Many high schools in the Ottawa area have closed peer mediation programs

    Ivan Roy
    Ottawa, Canada

    Thank you for your recent issue of the "School Mediator." When I open each e-issue, it always seems to address what's been on my mind.

    Peer mediation is in trouble in Philadelphia, too. Only a few have been truly institutionalized-due to lack of extracurricular pay for teacher-coordinators, administration and staff turnover, general ennui, and a lack of administrative support-and there just isn't any money to support the programs. Even the high school devoted to "Peace and Social Justice" cancelled the contract because of budget cutbacks, thereby decimating further peer mediator training and technical support.

    Our school district is millions of dollars in debt, yet it seems to be able to pay for metal detectors and school police.

    I understand that peer mediation and conflict resolution are not the universal answer to bullying or violence in the schools. However, I believe that incorporating conflict resolution education, peer mediation, and restorative justice into our schools would go much further toward alleviating many of the problems faced by schools today.

    Cheryl Cutrona, Esq.
    Executive Director
    Good Shepherd Mediation Program
    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

    We are having a very good year with mediations. We are thankful that we have the total support of our administrators because they are our main referral system, although we do have teacher, student and self-referrals also. In a school of 1200 students, we have had 85 referrals so far this year.

    On another positive note, we are presently soliciting peer mediators for next year. For 15 vacancies, we received 63 applications! A few of the applicants are former parties who valued how they were treated during the mediation. I was thrilled! It was evidence that we are a strong, well-respected group within our school.

    I cannot imagine our school without peer mediation. It has enlightened and empowered all that have come in contact with it.

    Randi Orpen
    Spanish Teacher and Peer Mediation Advisor
    Woburn Memorial High School
    Woburn, Massachusetts

    In York Region in Ontario where I teach, peer mediation is being supported by our board of education. It is part of our Character Education initiative which supports qualities like honesty and fairness.

    I have been running the peer mediation program at our high school for the past 3 years, involving more than 100 students over that time. Our peer mediators also go down and train students at our feeder elementary schools.

    I find that the program takes up a chunk of my time as a guidance counselor, but it solves other things and generates a better atmosphere in our school. Other high schools in our region don't have the program.

    If the initiative loses support from the board, however, peer mediation could suffer.

    Les Kerr
    Guidance Counselor
    Dr. G. W. Williams Secondary School
    Aurora, Ontario, Canada

    I read your newsletter article and I was shocked. Mediation is so important, as you all well know.

    I am a school counselor at an elementary school of nearly 800 students, K-5, and peer mediation is well accepted here. I have 22 mediators on our team, some of whom are gifted with skills beyond their years.

    How can we not teach and use mediation? How can we not teach kids that to sit down and talk things out is the only way to face problems effectively? What is the alternative?

    Sometimes I think we get so caught up in data that we forget that no matter what data says, we need to teach some basic skills in problem solving and getting along with other people.

    Thanks for what you do.

    Tim Francis
    School Counselor
    Jefferson Elementary School
    Goshen, Indiana

    Thank you for your recent issue of The School Mediator- depressing, but inspiring.

    Although national educational agendas and tight budgets are making it difficult for peer mediation programs, there doesn't seem to be any shortage of conflict in schools these days. And we know that a safe, comfortable learning environment is important to do well on all those tests. Some schools really do want peer mediation, but are struggling to balance their core budgets. Class sizes are bigger, old schools are falling apart, and teaching materials are increasingly expensive.

    I think those of us involved in peer mediation training and/or coordination have to be more creative in helping schools find new ways to fund peer mediation programs. It's probably not going to be included in the school budgets, or come from traditional funding sources, unless our state or national government truly views peer mediation as the viable prevention and intervention method we know it is.

    I would be interested in hearing from others who have been able to find such creative funding so as to work with schools and community youth programs.

    Eve Noss, MSW
    North Shore Community Mediation
    Beverly, Massachusetts

    I read with interest the piece in your newsletter about Peer Mediation programs and find myself wondering why, after all the specific examples of closing and threatened programs, do you end on a note of optimism and a statement that in fact peer mediation will survive the hardships?

    I hesitate to think that the fresh enthusiasm for a new program is strong counter-evidence to the real limitations that you mentioned. Though there is no shortage of inspiration or talent on the part of practitioners to teach these skills, our take home lesson is that it takes a whole lot more than that to rest assured that peer mediation will continue.

    More useful to individuals and organizations facing these challenges would be a deeper investigation into the factors that result in strong and lasting programs and the factors that lead to program failures and closure. At least then we could look at the evidence and make adjustments to programs that would truly increase the chances of sustainability.

    Maybe if we started to quantify the costs of conflict in schools, and could put a dollar amount to the savings of conflict prevention, it would increase our chances of success. Personally, I'm not aware of research of this nature though it may exist.

    I hope you will continue to examine the challenges alongside the successes of these programs in future publications.

    Sherisa Aguirre
    Executive Director
    Community Mediation Services
    Eugene, Oregon

    My sense is that here in the UK interest in peer mediation is on the rise as part of the growing commitment to Social and Emotional education (SEAL).

    My own organization always encourages teachers to consider the importance of all staff providing the restorative environment in which the peer mediation scheme needs to thrive, one in which all adults use restorative conversations with students and offer mediation/group problem solving where necessary. Research would suggest that it is only when the adults are modeling this approach themselves that a peer mediation scheme will thrive.

    Dr. Belinda Hopkins
    Transforming Conflict
    Mortimer, Berkshire, England

    I'm sorry to hear about the sad state of peer mediation in this country, especially the news that Carole Close's program in Cleveland-my first introduction to peer mediation-is struggling to keep its funding.

    It's discouraging that we have not recognized the need to revamp our focus on academics in schools; essentially the same focus as when I was teaching in the 1960's.

    When will we "get it" that how one relates to other people is critical to success and essential to a sense of fulfillment as human beings? What has to change before adults design schools that make human relationships and creativity central to the education process, not peripheral as they are now?

    We know how to do it. We're doing it on a small scale all over the country with fabulous programs that humanize the school experience for children as well as the teachers and administrators who care about them. We just don't seem to have the will to create on a larger scale what we know works in public education.

    Perhaps a new president at the helm with fresh ideas will help. Election day 2008 can't come quickly enough for me!

    Margaret Pevec, MA
    Co-Author of What Kids REALLY Want to Ask: Using Movies to Start Meaningful Conversations
    Kent State
    Kent, Ohio

  • About Us
  • For twenty-three 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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