Peer mediation: Let's talk about it

Dec. 18, 2003, midnight | By Anna Benfield | 15 years, 12 months ago

From early on, parents and authority figures tell children to listen. But as we grow up, no one ever teaches us this essential interpersonal skill. The result: generations of Americans who are waiting for their turn to speak. Even an untrained eye can see that this is becoming an increasingly important problem in Blair halls and classrooms. A peer mediation program is desperately needed at Blair, and NSL teacher Ken Smith has taken the initiative to get one up and running. As students, teachers and administrators, we all need to do our part to make his plan a working reality.

Currently, only conflicts that result in violence are called to the attention of teachers and administrators, who often step in with a heavy hand. Not only are the responses usually too late, they are ineffective. Punishment is really a band-aid solution to deeper issues.

The discrepancy between the number of suspensions last year (422) and number of students involved (330) indicates that there were almost 100 repeat offences. Suspension has failed as a long-term solution because it does not give students an opportunity to learn how to deal with conflict in their lives.

Peer mediation is a proven method to resolve school conflicts and empower students to handle future problems. A neutral pair of students, without the power to tell the two parties what to do, actively listens to each side and encourages them to brainstorm terms for an agreement. Ultimately, the students in conflict propose and agree on solutions.

Kathy Owens, from the Center for Dispute Settlement, witnessed mediations' powerful impact on the D.C. public school system she worked with for 15 years. At Jefferson Junior High School, all but two of the 110 cases mediated in one year were permanently resolved.

One especially notable success story involved the resolution of a year-long feud between two groups of ninth grade girls. They had fought on numerous occasions, and even the police were unable to create any lasting accord. As a last resort, the principal referred the case to mediation, where, during a two-hour session, the girls engaged in a dialogue and realized the misunderstanding that lay at the root of their anger.

Skills that mediators learn through the training and mediation process are also empowering. One student was so confident with her mediating skills that when a heated argument broke out between a bus driver and passenger, she immediately stepped in and volunteered to help, says Owens.

Winning student trust will be Blair's biggest challenge in establishing the program. After this initial phase, students will bring their issues to mediation before the situation escalates.

In order for Blair to reach this level of success, the program needs multilateral cooperation. As Smith negotiates terms with administration, they will need to back initial consent with active support, ceding some of the power they are used to holding. The program will be successful only if it can operate without administrative referrals.

Student advocates and participants will be most integral to the program's success.

As a Blair community, we must open our eyes to less conventional answers; violence is escalating in our halls, and the authority-based systems in place are falling short.

If you have been previously or would be interested in being trained as a mediator contact Ken Smith at

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Anna Benfield. Anna Benfield is a CAP swimmer, field hockey and lacrosse goalie and diversity workshop leader. She loves biking, sailing, collages, the zoo and her little brother. More »

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