The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. II 4/03

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Peer Mediators Caught in Drug Bind

Response to Instant Conflicting

About Us

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The School Mediator's Field Guide:
Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges
by Richard Cohen
more info

Students Resolving Conflict:
Peer Mediation in Schools

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

This month we explore the tension created for peer mediators by the realities of teenage drug use. Do take a moment to send along your thoughts and experiences.

I spent last Friday with Suzanna Andrew, the fianc├łe of Morgan McDuffee. This issue of The School Mediator is dedicated to Morgan, and to his family and friends who must go forward without him.

Morgan, a senior at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, was murdered while attempting to break up a fight among his peers. He did what each of us hope we would have done under similar circumstances: he tried to help. May his honorable action and his immeasurable sacrifice inspire us to redouble our efforts to teach the skills of peacemaking.

Wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

PS: If you received this free newsletter directly from us, you are already on our subscriber list. If a colleague forwarded it to you, you can easily subscribe by sending your email address to

Peer Mediators Caught in Drug Bind
We have a drug problem.

But it's probably not what you think.

Yes, heroin use is up among young people. Yes, the US government's War on Drugs has cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars over the last three decades with virtually no net benefit.

But for student mediators, a most vexing drug-related problem results from the fact that we are not of one mind on the issue of teenage drug use.

On one hand, approximately a third of high schoolers report that they smoke marijuana at least once a year, and over 20% say they "binge drink" (5 plus drinks in a row) at least once every 14 days. Recreational drug use is a fact of life for most teenage student mediators; even if they don't personally engage in it, they know (and care about) people who do.

On the other hand, adults clearly disapprove of this behavior, and rightly so. Anti-drug ads are common across the media, and the adult world's homilies, admonitions and (often empty) threats about drugs are seemingly unending. And not to forget the obvious: it's illegal!

Peer mediators straddle the boundary between these two worlds, pulled between the reality of life among their peers and the responsibility they assume as student leaders. This can leave them uncertain as to how to act with integrity.

To understand how this plays out, assume that drug use is mentioned by parties during a peer mediation session. If student mediators inform their coordinator about this illegal and potentially harmful behavior, and if the coordinator decides to involve counselors or administrators, mediators risk losing the trust of their peers. But, if mediators respect their peers' privacy, then students who potentially need assistance do not receive it (and additionally, mediators do not fulfill their responsibility to the adults who coordinate their program).

Complicating matters further, adults of goodwill disagree as to when the drug-related danger line is crossed. For some, smoking marijuana even once is considered dangerous; for others, smoking marijuana every weekend, if it is done "responsibly" and does not effect other aspects of a young person's life, is not cause for serious concern.

So how do student mediators decide where the line is?

The good news is, they don't have to. It is solely the responsibility of the adult coordinator to determine whether information about parties should be divulged to others outside of the mediation program.

It is also essential, however, that peer mediators feel comfortable informing their coordinator about everything they learn during sessions.

The task for coordinators, then, is two fold:

First, determine when information regarding students' drug use should "leave" the program. If you are not already knowledgeable about this issue, talk to those who are. A general rule of thumb for whether a person's drug use requires intervention is if a pattern of use exists that negatively affects the individual's life. Indicators of such a pattern might include frequency of use, driving under the influence, stealing, use at inappropriate times (before babysitting, before school), losing jobs, disrupting relationships, and so on.

Second, make sure that student mediators support your approach. Explain your thinking to mediators, address their questions and concerns, and ensure that they feel comfortable with your approach to this issue. You might begin by asking mediators if they have felt the need to keep information from you in the past.

But here we come to an immutable law of peer mediation: To operate a responsible and effective peer mediation program, student mediators must be willing to tell adult coordinators everything they learn during sessions, and especially potentially important information like drug use.

Ultimately, students who are not willing to abide by this "law" should not be allowed to mediate for your program.

How have you handled the issue of drug-related information in your peer mediation program? Please respond: We can all learn from your experiences and insights.

Thanks to Randi Orpen, Peer Mediation Coordinator and Spanish teacher, Loren Baccari, Adjustment Counselor, and the excellent peer mediators at Woburn High School, Woburn, MA for both inspiring and helping me write this issue.

The statistics cited above came from the comprehensive 2002 report entitled "Monitoring the Future," and funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Response to Instant Conflicting

Below are a few of the comments we received in response to last month's newsletter about Instant Messaging and student conflict.

Thank you for the interesting article. I work as a parent/child mediator and also teach peer mediation. Time on the computer is a huge source of conflict with many of our families. I sometimes see a connection to when a teenager is feeling down and the amount of time spent on line and I.M.

For example, a 15 year old girl is having a difficult time at school with her friends around gossip and disagreements with friends or teachers. She comes home feeling down and spends most of the evening on I.M. with her friends rehashing the day's events. Things get misinterpreted and the conflict gets bigger and more people get involved (especially if she has a long "buddy list"). She goes to bed angry, goes to school in a bad mood, and the cycle begins over again.

Conflicts with family members also result because of little time spent together, disagreements about time spent on the computer, and short tempers.

New conflicts for a new age.

Sandy Mulcahy
Mediation Coordinator
Nashua Mediation Program
Nashua, NH USA

Hello my name is B.J. I read your article about IM and I agree but I really do think that students will continue to use it and talk behind people's backs no matter what happens. I am 18 years old and I am graduating from high school this year and I actually went on homebound because of how vicious and mean kids have become. It is awful in school, nobody cares, and I have talked to so many younger kids and adults and all of them agree that most of the problems and harassment that was inflicted upon them happened at High School. So many people have been permanently scarred by kids' attitudes today.

People fight just to fight; they have gotten to the point that they are numb to the violence around them, or even the pain that they cause to others. I blame a lot of this on television and the Internet. All you see in the movies and on TV anymore is killing and guns and violence and sex. After a while kids believe the only way to handle their problems is through violence.

I am so disappointed in the world today. It is so awful, people just don't care. Spend 2 weeks in a high school, just walk around everyday and visit the classes, you will be appalled at what you see and hear. Just have a young pretty girl who looks 18 go in a school, then you will really see the perverse nature of kids today.

Well I hope you read this and maybe it will open your eyes.

B.J. Andrews
Connellsville, PA USA

Thank you for your newsletters. I look forward to reading them! We have had a peer mediation group for the past 8 years. We are a K-6 school. Our mediation training starts in grade 3 and conflict resolution classes begin in K.

Shirley Rivera
Epiphany School
Honolulu, Hawaii


 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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