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Excerpted from Chapter 2: Mediating Conflicts Involving Harassment: An Overview in The School Mediator's Field Guide: Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges by Richard Cohen
Suggestions for Mediating Conflicts Involving Harassment
Taken together, characteristics of conflicts that involve harassment — the potential legal and disciplinary issues, the need to prevent re-victimization, and the power imbalances among parties — represent a very real challenge to mediators and warrant caution. Careful case screening and intake is essential to assess whether a dispute is appropriate for mediation. When one is, school mediators must maintain the integral principles of mediation (voluntariness, impartiality confidentiality, interpersonal transformation, self-determination and safety) at the same time that they support the institutional goal of eliminating harassment.
A Careful Intake
Of course, the issues involved in a potential mediation case are usually not clear prior to conducting an intake interview. Coordinators often learn only the rough details of the situation from referral sources, and some of this information may be inaccurate. When meeting for the first time with a student who has self-referred, coordinators may begin knowing absolutely nothing about the conflict. Initially, coordinators should proceed as they would in all intake interviews: attempt to build trust, determine whether the case is appropriate for mediation, and encourage parties to try media-tion if it is.
Coordinators should always hesitate to draw conclusions about a case until after interviewing both parties. It may seem clear that the party in the first intake is the victim of harassment; that is, until one speaks with the supposed harasser, who makes similar claims. Sometimes both parties are right: each is harassing the other and is responsible for escalating tensions between them. But equally often it becomes clear that one party is primarily the harasser, and the other primarily the victim, regardless of what the harasser claims. In these latter cases, which we have called "conflicts involving harassment," the first party to contact the coordinator will most often be the victim. Perhaps he or she came directly to the mediator for help, or the party may have been referred by an administrator, a teacher, or a friend. A helpful way to conceptualize the goals of intake interviews with victims of harassment is to provide three fundamentals during the process:
1. Support. It is difficult and sometimes dangerous to seek help when one is being harassed. Coordinators' first goal, therefore, must be to engender students' trust and demonstrate that mediation is safe and responsive. Build rapport by listening well, showing compassion for victims, and never blaming them. Coordinators can also refer victims to counselors, student groups (gay/straight alliances, diversity groups, etc.) or others in or outside of school who might provide support and help them cope with the effect of the harassment.
2. Information. Secondly, make sure that students are well informed concerning their rights and the available options for redressing their grievance. Familiarize victims with informal processes like mediation as well as with more formal procedures such as initiating a complaint within the school system or filing suit in court. Help them consider the relative strengths and limitations of each option (e.g., it is difficult to win a case in court, and going to mediation does not guarantee that harassers will stop their behavior).
Mediation is an appropriate intervention only when both parties make an informed decision to participate. But being the primary provider of information to parties can strain a mediator's ability to be unbiased. Whenever possible, therefore, refer parties to others who can effectively and sensitively provide this information.
Mediators must proceed with great caution when they help students who have been victimized gain assistance from school administrators and understand their rights. No longer only mediators, these individuals are now advocates as well. If mediation sessions do occur, mediators must be cognizant of how these actions affect their ability to be unbiased, both in reality and in the eyes of the parties.
3. Choice. Finally, after parties feel supported and are well informed, help them consider: What outcome do they wish for? What do they want and need in order to resolve the conflict? Apart from wanting the harassment to stop, do they want the harasser punished? Do they want to continue to have a relationship with him or her? Is keeping the incident confidential of great importance? Do they want to tell their parents what happened? Help parties clarify their needs rather than simply taking their responses at face value. Answering these types of questions will help parties determine their response to the basic question: Do they want to mediate?
It is essential that parties who have been victimized feel in control of the process of resolving their conflict. They should not be required to try non-adversarial processes prior to initiating formal disciplinary proceedings, and if they choose to mediate first, they should know that formal procedures are still available to them any time they choose.