The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. IV, 10/04

in this issue

Omar's Absence

Response to "Peer Mediator Diversity"

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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 December issue of The School Mediator.

This month's issue is about the emotional lives of students.

As always, please send along your thoughts and experiences.

Wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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  • Omar's Absence

  • It was a typical group of peer mediation trainees.

    When we arrived at their middle school to conduct the third and final day of training, it had been almost a week since we were last together. Students were chatting excitedly, moving heavy library tables so we could sit in a circle.

    The coordinator, Mr. Base, immediately pulled us aside and said that one of the trainees, Omar, would be absent. His father had committed suicide the previous Sunday. Today was the funeral.

    We quickly decided to revise our agenda so that we could discuss Omar's loss.

    We began the day as always: with a warm welcome and a review. Students stood in a circle and one by one offered something they had learned from the previous two days' work. They were engaged, funny, impressive.

    Then we pulled the chairs close. Noting Omar's absence and the reason for it (the students already knew), we "opened the floor" for students to share their thoughts and feelings.

    One of Omar's friends, Allie, was the first to speak. She had known Omar's father, and she said that Omar didn't want lots of people approaching him to talk about this. (Omar had attended school since the suicide.)

    She also noted that recently a friend of hers had threatened to commit suicide. Allie claimed to have prevented this friend from doing so by staying with her for two weeks, day and night, until she changed her mind.

    Had Allie informed an adult about this situation?


    Allie is twelve.

    Perry then described, with aching disbelief, that his own stepsister had attempted suicide earlier this year. It was near impossible for him to understand how she could do such a thing. "And she didn't think about how it would affect me..."

    A short silence.

    "My mother died almost a year ago." It was Christina, a girl whose hyperactivity and general goofiness had challenged us during the training.

    Christina said that sometimes she wants to talk about her mother's death, and other times she doesn't. Sounding mature beyond her years, she described it as a "process you go through."

    Christina was soon sharing the details of her mother's illness. When she described the yellowish cast of her mother's skin when her father found her, she was overcome with grief.

    And so it went; the tissue box passed from student to student.

    A boy who had hardly spoken in the large group had lost a parent a few years ago. A girl broke into tears just at the thought of losing one of her parents. Another remembered her parents crying at the kitchen table after the death of her grandfather.

    Everyone, adults and students, offered advice and comfort.

    An hour passed.

    When Niki, dressed in factory-disheveled skater clothes, began explaining how her parents divorced when she was four, and how she had made the mistake of keeping her feelings inside for so long, one thing was clear: The students could have gone on for another hour.

    Reluctantly, we told the group that we had work to do, that we had to get back to the mediation training. After general words of appreciation and offers of ongoing assistance from the school counselor who had joined us, we took a short break.

    Then, awkwardly at first, we resumed our agenda and focused on peer mediation.

    Before long, students were again engaged in roleplays, exploring the intricacies of their responsibility regarding confidentiality, and playing silly games and energizers.

    An observer who arrived later in the day could never have guessed what we had discussed that morning.

    It was just a typical group of peer mediation trainees.

    Share your thoughts....

    *The identities of these students have been changed.

  • Response to "Peer Mediator Diversity"

  • We received many responses to last month's issue of The School Mediator concerning peer mediator diversity. I have posted a number of them below:

    One addition to your list of reasons for selecting a diverse group of peer mediators: To help students who aren't over-acheivers. Being a mediator gives them self-confidence and a sense that they have something to offer. (i.e. The experience is important for the peer mediators themselves, not just for the program.)

    Lisa Richlen
    The Mosaica Center for Conflict Resolution Through Agreement
    Jerusalem, Israel

    I read your article about peer mediator diversity and agreed with the reasons you give for promoting it. Like you, I found that schools often want to select "stars" when they begin a mediation program.

    Which brings me to another reason for promoting diversity --the most effective (star?) mediators sometime comes from the ranks of kids who are least likely to be selected as peer mediators. A case in point is Felix (name changed) who was in a special-ed, self-contained classroom. He had low test scores, poor grades; even his teacher said he "does not have what it takes to become a peer mediator."

    Another teacher in the school, however, saw something in Felix that others did not. She fought for him, and he was selected for the training.

    It soon became clear that this boy, who could not sit still in class, who could not multiply fractions or write a cogent essay, was gifted in working with others as a mediator. He could "read" others; he could soothe their emotional pain. Felix was indeed a "star".

    Being mindful of diversity increases the probability that we will discover students whose special skills are not tapped into by the academic life of many schools.

    James Tobin
    Ramapo College
    Ridgewood, New Jersey
    Author of Smart School Leaders: Leading with Emotional Intelligence

    Honestly, I think that we are looking for students who can handle missing class time (both for the training and when we call them out to conduct a mediation). It is not realistic to think that they will mediate during non- academic time because it hardly exists with time-on-learning requirements.

    This is why a large number of the students chosen as peer mediators are "honor roll kids." They may look diverse, which is helpful, but we cannot allow students who are in the behavior room or who are the "street kids" to be mediators if their grades are going to suffer. Because teachers will stop supporting the program. It is a double-edged sword.

    Christine Leamy
    Guidance Counselor
    Gardner Middle School
    Gardner, Massachusetts

    Why is the coordinator picking the mediators in the first place?

    Students will know best who they will trust to mediate, and by being involved in the selection process, they will have more of a sense of ownership of the scheme. Students also have a better idea of the emotional intelligence of their peers; staff tend to focus on academic ability.

    Often we hear of students being chosen by their classmates who staff would never dream of choosing, but who turn out to be wise choices. Staff have their own prejudices, and may overlook "troublemakers" who nevertheless have leadership skills and credibility with their peers.

    Of course, after a student vote, you may still end up with many of the schools' social groups underrepresented. So give the coordinator clear guidelines on a selection process which involves student participation (e.g. by class vote) and then additional selections by staff (or student council) with diversity in mind.

    Rachel Boyd
    Development Officer
    School Councils UK
    London, England

    I am the Conflict Resolution Coordinator at an inner-city middle school, where the majority of the students/families live in poverty. We have a large Hispanic population. Our second largest student group is African American, then Caucasian (European descent) and finally our Arab- American students.

    I want to say "Amen" to your article about peer mediators and the importance of having a diverse group of students. It is also a good idea to have students who have experienced conflict in their lives and who have been through mediation as parties. They learn from the experience and they can relate to the students they are mediating!

    Sometimes these same students need a little more supervision/practice to polish their skills, but since they often are not involved in other school activities, peer mediation can become one of their most important connections to the school.

    Thanks for the comments about diversity.

    Janice Capezzuto
    Luis Munoz Marin Middle School
    Cleveland, Ohio

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. It would not be in the best interest of the school to have all the high achievers as peer mediators.

    People ask me why I don't always take the academic achievers and I tell them that it is because the students who come to mediation are very diverse and already feel like they don't fit in.

    In addition, students who need to gain confidence and a purpose in school can make great mediators. Some of my best mediators come from various economic backgrounds as well as academic backgrounds. Not only does having a diverse group of students help other students understand that a mediator is a person just like themselves, it also gives the student that mediates a sense of belonging to a group and helps them make better life choices.

    Kimberly Cummins
    Howell High School
    Howell, Michigan

  • About Us
  • For 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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