The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen March, 2002

in this issue

Student Mediators are Born, Not Made

Mediation and Bullying

About Us

Welcome to the March issue of The School Mediator.

This month's issue features one educator's challenging experiences teaching young people to be competent mediators. As always, your response is invited.

Wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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Student Mediators are Born, Not Made
The following piece was sent to The School Mediator by an excellent peer mediation coordinator who I happen to know. He has been active in the field for close to a decade and has personally trained hundreds of students to mediate. He is currently an adjustment counselor and mediation coordinator in an urban high school in the United States. His school has large, first-generation Asian and Hispanic populations and a difficult gang problem. He has chosen to remain anonymous. These are his words:

It is a frustrating reality for me that most kids we train to be mediators aren't very good at it. I am writing to clarify my feelings and hopefully to receive feedback from others wrestling with this issue.

During our initial training, students generally do a good job and I always feel hopeful. But once they begin working with real parties, students seem to forget what they learned.

As an example, the other day students mediated a conflict and:
1. Completely forgot to summarize what either party had said;
2. Hardly asked any questions;
3. Asked parties what they wanted from mediation at an inappropriate time, right after the second party finished telling their story.

Each of these deficits is linked to an integral part of our mediation model, a model that I have reviewed with students countless times.

When I gave the mediators feedback after the session, they were unresponsive and claimed they had done what I clearly saw that they had not. It took all my willpower not to say to them, "What in the world was that? You call that mediation!" But, of course, I didn't.

One of these particular mediators is a senior and has been trained by us twice!

Why do the mediators seem to lose many of the skills they exhibit during training? I give feedback after students mediate, I hold biweekly meetings, I even organize advanced trainings, but it seems like my mediators are only committed during the initial training.

Perhaps my biggest concern regarding students' abilities, however, is that I often find that underlying issues don't reveal themselves when young people are the mediators.

Yesterday, for instance, there was a mediation between a boy, Luis, and a girl, Maria. The case was referred by an administrator, and because of extenuating circumstances, I had to mediate this dispute myself.

I was informed that the fight occurred because Luis was sent to sit next to Maria. Maria did not want him to sit next to her and they exchanged words. Their dispute escalated until Maria actually hit Luis. She was suspended for five days. Luis did not hit Maria (and in fact he was teased by others for refraining from hitting her).

During the mediation, both parties were clearly very uncomfortable and they were giggling in a nervous manner. Maria was upset because she thought Luis had called her a "ho" earlier in the day.

I asked about their prior relationship and neither party wanted to speak. After explaining how their past may be exacerbating their present problems, and assuring them everything was confidential and that I was not going to judge them, Luis and Maria finally opened up. It became clear that they had attended a party together and had had a sexual "one night stand."

Maria and Luis were able to talk this out and come to some understanding. In the end, neither party was 100% satisfied, but they were certainly farther along the healing process than if they had not discussed their previous relationship.

I am quite confident that this information would not have come out had the mediators been students. Most of my student mediators would have accepted the parties' reluctance to speak about the past, and they would have missed the clues--clues which were relatively obvious to my experienced sensibilities--that there was more to the situation than met they eye.

I must add that we do usually gain a couple of wonderful student mediators after each training. But I become more convinced each year that mediators are born, not made.

If someone has a natural talent for listening and questioning, the training codifies the talent for them. But I believe if they're not already a "natural," the training doesn't stick.

I would really appreciate reading others' reactions and ideas. Thank you.

Your thoughts...

Mediation and Bullying
We received many responses to last month's article cautioning educators not to mediate conflicts involving bullying. Below are just a few. (These opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of School Mediation Associates.)

I couldn't disagree more. I feel that when cases of bullying are mediated by competent mediators, especially students, the person doing the bullying has the opportunity to understand the impact of their behavior and the victim is empowered to gain some control over the situation.

As the director of middle and high school mediation programs in New York City, I believe the incidence of bullying is far more than 3 students per classroom. If we catch bullying behavior before it rages out of control, we can avoid many of the school shooting situations. Remember, most bullies are trying to control others because they are controlled by someone else.

Students need to feel safe in reporting bullying and adults need to respond appropriately. This is accomplished as part of a school-wide effort. No, tolerance doesn't work, but education and mediation do!

Tara Fishler
New York City, New York, USA

I enjoyed your article on Bullying. I will forward it to all my peer coordinators. I am just now making Bully Proof training available to all our schools here in Oakland County, Michigan. We see this as a perfect fit for the kind of youth training we do here.

Bonnie Hanes
Youth Training Director
Oakland County, Michigan, USA

It is time we expand the mediation model in schools beyond peer mediation. I believe this is rich ground for collaboration between schools and community mediation programs - to support the teachers, staff and students.

I believe that for a bullying situation, an adult mediator is more appropriate - and the mediation needs to include the bullying student's parent! A peer mediator is not appropriate.

By limiting "mediation" to only "peer mediation" - we further the perception among middle school and high school students that "mediation is for little kids." I welcome anyone's comments or suggestions about this, please contact me!

Evelyn L. Ang, Director
Northwest Milwaukee Mediation Program
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

Interesting article on bullying in schools. I agree that like any serious imbalance of power, bullies and their victims are not good candidates for mediation.

I was, however, struck by the statement in your article that most victims do not report bullying to adults. It is possible that a bullying situation might become apparent in a peer mediation where the victim had hesitated to report the full story to the screening adult. We need to train peer mediators to recognize these situations and assess the viability of mediation. To some extent it is a judgment call on the part of the peer mediators to determine whether a bullying situation exists or a milder form of harassment.

I believe it is important to educate peer mediators and prepare them to uncover and deal with bullying situations. Let's not just ignore bullying when training peer mediators because we acknowledge that it is not appropriate for young people to deal with. Rather we need to present bullying situations in our training and help youth identify and deal appropriately with them.

Nancy Kaplan
CRU Institute
Bellevue, Washington, USA

If you contact someone directly with information that might be of interest to The School Mediator readers, send it along to us too!

About Us
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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