The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. V, 9/05

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Unprepared to Keep a Secret

Response to "Peer Mediation for 20 Years!?"

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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
more info

Welcome back to school, and to the September issue of The School Mediator. It is hard to believe that this is our fifth year of publication!

This month I share some thoughts about the common practice of requiring parties to promise to keep the contents of their sessions confidential.

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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  • Unprepared to Keep a Secret

  • I am very proud of the way student mediators uphold their promise of confidentiality. After 21 years of practice, I still count on one hand the number of times that mediators have broken their pledge.

    This speaks volumes about the integrity of the peer mediation concept, particularly the maturity and capability of well-trained student mediators.

    One aspect of confidentiality about which I have less confidence, however, is the common practice of requiring parties to keep the information that they learn in the session confidential.

    The motivation behind this requirement is clear enough. For parties to benefit most from mediation, they often have to discuss their interests, feelings, and perceptions honestly. The threat that one party might later share unflattering information about the other reduces the likelihood of such an open exchange. Requiring parties to assume a privacy commitment similar to the mediators is one way to reduce this risk.

    Though I appreciate the motivation, I find fault with this practice for two reasons:

    1. It Seems Unfair to Parties
    When I was a party in mediation, one of the first things I did after the session was speak with my wife about what had happened. This debriefing helped me understand what occurred, integrate what I had learned, and prepare to move forward.

    To restrict parties from talking to confidantes about their most personal challenges seems to contradict human nature. Not only is it unfair to parties, particularly parties who are young people, but it limits their ability to get the most from their mediation experience.

    2. It is Unrealistic
    Despite their good intentions, some parties (and likely many) will be unable to uphold their commitment to confidentiality. Perhaps they have not carefully considered the obligations of such a commitment. (Unlike mediators, parties don't have the benefit of training on this subject.) Perhaps their urge to talk trumps their promise of secrecy.

    And when sessions end with little understanding between parties, the temptation to talk (sometimes with the explicit intent of hurting the other party) is particularly strong. By requiring a promise that parties are unprepared to fulfill, we only set them up to fail.

    I have long assumed, in fact, that parties consistently break their commitment to uphold confidentiality, primarily by discussing their session with friends and parents. This would be disastrous for peer mediation were it not for the programs' "success rate"--the fact that most parties leave mediation feeling like their conflict is resolved and therefore without a desire to malign the other party.

    So we have a quandary. We certainly don't want to limit the success we have in the mediation room, nor jeopardize the sometimes fragile peace that parties create, by neglecting to emphasize the importance of confidentiality.

    At the same time, we want to be fair to parties, respect their right to talk to those they trust about their deepest concerns, and acknowledge the likelihood that they will do so regardless.

    Some might argue that it is still better to continue to require parties, as a precondition for participation, to keep the information they learn in the session confidential. Then at least we err on the side of caution, and we can deal with the occasional and inevitable breaches that do occur.

    I, however, prefer to not make the confidentiality commitment a requirement of parties' participation. Instead, I request that parties not talk to others about the contents of the session, especially if such discussions might hurt the other party in any way. And I encourage coordinators and student mediators to remind parties about this both at the start and at the conclusion of the process.

    Although this may appear to be a subtle difference, I think it is "cleaner," as well as more consistent with reality. Because this approach is more explicit about why we ask for confidentiality, I think it also leads to better results.

    What do you think? How do you and your mediators handle this issue? Please write and share your thoughts and experiences...

  • Response to "Peer Mediation for 20 Years!?"

  • A few of the responses we received to the last issue of The School Mediator are posted below. As always, thanks to all who responded.

    With only 5 years in the program, I still feel like a novice ... I continue to learn right along with the students!

    I learned most about the process when I was called upon to mediate a case myself. A neighborhood social worker asked me to mediate a situation between two groups of girls. The initial mediation took almost 3 hours, and the same students returned for additional mediation sessions during the course of the year. BUT the frequency of their conflicts became less, and the next year one of the girls asked to be trained as a mediator!

    I love the fact that the students are learning a new vocabulary of PEACE, one that they don't usually hear in their inner-city neighborhoods. Once a student introduced me to her friends this way: "This is Mrs. Capezzuto. She helps me solve my conflicts." That is what makes it worthwhile.

    I haven't been doing it long enough to see the same long term effects that you have seen, but I KNOW my efforts are making a difference!!

    Thanks for the newsletters.

    Janice Capezzuto
    Luis Munoz Marin Middle School
    Cleveland, Ohio

    I wanted to let you know that I was taken with your paragraph in this issue titled: "The Force Is With Us."

    What profound words to describe the reasons why we choose mediation to bring peace to our little communities.

    I'm retiring as an educator this fall and going full time into the field of mediation.

    Thank you for your words of encouragement, support, logic, humor and insight (and more!). I hope to continue to receive your newsletters in the years to come.

    Val Gallina
    Pinellas County Schools
    Clearwater, Florida

    Thanks for the newsletter regarding your 20 years in Peer Mediation. It was very motivating to read what inspires you to do this work.

    I am very committed to what is possible for people in addressing their conflicts with dignity and honor. After 23 years of practicing law, I am on the cusp of starting my own mediation group and center. From the skills of effective negotiation and facilitation of transactions, I see a new future for myself as a mediator, creating valuable avenues for conflict resolution and transformation of people, particularly in special education and employment law.

    Your newsletter is a joy to read and I look forward to the next one in September.

    Jill L. Brooks
    White Plains, NY

  • About Us
  • For twenty-one 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.

    Call us: 617-926-0994
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    Watertown, MA 02472 USA

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