The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. II 5/03

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Model Problems

Response to "Peer Mediators Caught in Drug Bind"

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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 issue of The School Mediator.

This month I discuss a few of the apparent limitations of some popular peer mediation models. Do take a moment to send along your thoughts and experiences.

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

 Model Problems

Most peer mediation programs train mediators to follow a specific structure or set of steps each time they mediate.

Student mediators depend upon these mediation "models." In fact, mediators usually have the steps on paper in front of them while they conduct sessions.

To illustrate, the steps in the early phases of a mediation session might typically include the following:

-Welcome the parties
-Explain the ground rules
-Listen to the first party
-Ask questions of the first party
-Summarize the first party's story

How did peer mediation pioneers come up with the steps in their mediation models?

For the most part, they made them up.

That's right. They applied their own experiences as mediators, their knowledge of other available models, and their understanding of young people and what they need when resolving conflicts, and they simply made them up.

As a result, we now have a multiplicity of peer mediation models applied throughout the world.

I think this diversity is good for a variety of reasons.

But I am not a relativist. I believe that there are best practices, or at least better practices: Given a specific age group, setting, and type of conflict, some models will produce better results--sounder resolutions, greater personal growth, more efficient use of time--than others.

Certainly on balance, peer mediation models are far more similar than they are different, more like comparing different varieties of tomatoes than comparing a tomato to an onion.

But the differences can be dramatic (especially to someone who spends much of his time thinking about this work).

One model might direct mediators to ask parties what they want at the exact moment that another model would have mediators ask each party to summarize the other's perspective. One model will encourage parties to speak directly to each other when another will separate the parties and have them speak to the mediators in private.

As far as I know (someone correct me if I am wrong), no research studies exist that have isolated and then measured the effectiveness of one mediation model against another. Quantitatively speaking, then, we are in the dark: we have little data to help determine whether one model works better than another.

For me, however, three particular aspects of middle/high school models are red flags of their potential deficiency. Unfortunately, I see them surprisingly often.

As I have described in a previous issue of this newsletter, I am far from infallible. But if your model recommends any of the three actions below, you better have a good reason (which I hope you will send to me!).

1. Parties are asked to resolve their conflict very early.
Here, mediators ask parties "What do you want to solve this?" immediately after the disputants describe their stories. The first party to speak actually explains how they want to resolve the problem before hearing the other party's perspective. This leads to shallow agreements and wasted time by encouraging parties to become positional.

Instead, we want parties to learn as much as they can about the problem, including, if they desire, about the other party's perspective, before they commit to saying how they want to solve the conflict.

2. Parties are never encouraged to speak to each other directly.
This limitation upsets me greatly when I come across it. In these models, mediators are always the communication "go-between." Parties explain their initial stories to the mediators, who then quickly separate the parties and meet with them in private, and finally the group assembles so that everyone can be informed (by the mediators primarily!) of what has been said and what is desired.

Mediators need to get out of the way, and let the parties--the people who are going to have to live with each other after the session--take a more active role in addressing each other and their concerns.

3. Models that take a rigid approach to the use private sessions.
One of the major differences in models, dating back to the earliest days of peer mediation, is whether to employ "private sessions." Private sessions refer to when mediators meet with parties separately and explore their perspectives in private. To my mind, they are an essential tool. But problems arise when mediators are required to take private sessions every time they mediate (preventing parties from speaking directly to one another as described above) or not at all (leading to shallow resolutions because "deeper" issues never surface).

Mediators should be encouraged to use private sessions as needed; not every time or not at all.

The mediation model that you use does make a difference.

What are your thoughts? And how does your model measure up? Respond and have your insights sent across the globe.

View the most current iteration of School Mediation Associates' 5-stage mediation model (used for students ages 12 and up), as well as the drawings we use to "illustrate" our model.

 Response to "Peer Mediators Caught in Drug Bind"

Below are a few of the comments we received in response to last month's newsletter about drug use and confidentiality in peer mediation.

Ten years ago, when I first started as a peer mediation coordinator, a student approached me to conduct a mediation concerning a drug sale and payment that had not been made. She had great concern about physical violence.

I didn't do a lot of soul searching. I simply found the first couple of mediators who walked past my office during passing time. It must have been the end-of-the-day Friday type thing.

At any rate, they were successful in assisting the parties to come to an agreement. It never did become violent. The biggest fallout was that one of the mediators had sincere concerns about the use of drugs and needed to debrief extensively.

Mediation coordinators are exposed to poor decision making by young people all the time, and there are few issues that don't have a reportable component--under-aged sex, drinking, driving under the influence, assault and battery, threats, cheating, theft, etc. It is always appropriate for the mediation coordinator to "be the adult" in private during the intake interview, but to go beyond confronting (and perhaps giving personal advice) in private, to reporting information to outside sources, is a mistake.

If students knew their issues were open for review outside the program (and they will know!), we in effect take from them the opportunity to deal with their conflicts in a productive manner.

Students will not feel safe enough to try mediation if they do not feel protected by confidentiality. The exceptions, including threats to do harm to oneself or others in the future should always be honored, but these are stated in our opening remarks and the parties know these before they begin.

Peer Mediation Coordinator
Anchorage, Alaska, USA

I agree with your article. For a peer mediation program to be successful, the school must have mediators who are willing to follow the guidelines. On numerous occasions while training especially high school students, this question of drugs and drinking always is asked.

It is hard for the mediators to make the right decisions. As you stated, if they inform the Coordinator, then they run the risk of not being trusted, which could have a negative impact upon the program. On the other hand, they might miss a disputant who is calling out for help.

My call is to have the Coordinator explain the responsibility of being a mediator. If a student does not feel comfortable with that, then as you have said, they should not be given this responsibility.

The success of the program is based on the fact that all mediators accept their responsibility, even if it means having to listen to negative comments. In the long run, I do believe those students will be able to live with the decisions they have made.

J. Frank Rizzo, MHR
Peer Mediation Coordinator
Amigos In Mediation
Bexar County Dispute Resolution Center
San Antonio, Texas, USA

Schools are safety nets for kids. We see the conflicts, the relationship problems, the family issues, the depression, the eating disorders and the drug abuse, to name a few. Kids count on the adults to pick up on their red flags.

I have been a Health teacher, a district-wide Substance Abuse Prevention Coordinator and now a Safe Schools Program Coordinator. Currently, I supervise peer mediation for 22 schools, K-12.

My advice when training coordinators is yes, peer mediators must disclose any potential harm that they may witness during the mediation sessions to their adult advisor.

Although the pattern of abuse that you describe in your article is pertinent to adults, it is not always true for adolescents. Adolescent drug use is often at the root of the conflicts presented in the mediation ("I only did it because I drank too much...was high...needed the money..etc.") Any use can be dangerous and lead to other behavior problems.

Awareness of substance use indicates a need for the adults to respond. By Safe and Drug Free Schools mandates (a federally funded program that almost all schools access) and No Child Left Behind, it would be difficult for an adult to try to explain why they did not report information to the substance abuse specialist in their school. Only a professional can determine the extent of the problem and make appropriate referrals when necessary

So my advice to Peer Mediation Coordinators is this: be very clear during student training that substance abuse is going to be responded to seriously but confidentially. It is not something that the students nor the adults should determine as a problem or not. It is our job to get people help. Those students should be referred to the SAP to follow up.

One other word of caution to adults other than certified counselors, there are no confidentiality laws that would protect a teacher in keeping such information and not reporting it. If we suspect a child is being harmed in any way we MUST report that to the proper people in the school. If you do not have a Student Assistance Program, then talk to guidance. The principal and assistant principal can also help you with this problem.

This comes up a lot, and once you establish a pattern to respond, it becomes easier to handle. Peer Mediation is one way to help young people deal constructively with their problems rather than numb out with drugs.

Aprylle Desrosiers
Safe Schools Coordinator
Manchester School District
Manchester, NH, USA


 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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