The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. V, 4/06

in this issue

Response to Last Month's Coordinator's Dilemma

Richard's Thoughts...

What Actually Happened

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
more info

Welcome to the April issue of The School Mediator.

This month we feature your responses to March's Coordinators Dilemma. This issue's length (it is the longest "School Mediator" we have ever published) results from the overwhelming volume of responses we received.

It is an honor and a thrill to host this forum for caring and committed educators to learn from each other. Please utilize this resource by submitting your own challenges for exploration. And don't worry about the quality of the writing; we'll help with that.

Wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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  • Response to Last Month's Coordinator's Dilemma
  • A Summary of the Dilemma: Maria Goode, a junior, was selected by her coach to start on the girls basketball team instead of a more popular senior named Rochelle Bostwhistle. This led to ongoing and hurtful harassment of Ms. Goode, presumably carried out by her teammates as well as other students. The school administration has not been effective in stopping the harassment. The peer mediation coordinator wondered whether and how to intervene. Click here to read the complete dilemma.

    The following are excerpts of just some of the responses that we received to last month's newsletter. Apologies to those of you whose comments we were not able to post here.

    Although this school mediation coordinator is absolutely right in his/her estimation that the situation is inappropriate for mediation on many levels, my last choice would be to not do anything and let the conflict continue (or even escalate to some more hurtful form of violence).

    It is obvious that there is a dysfunctional relationship and a lot of hurt feelings underlying the manifested harassment, and that is the area in which mediation could be helpful. I share the Coordinator's suspicion that many of the basketball players are uncomfortable with the situation, and that they might be willing to share their feelings with a neutral, open-minded person.

    In a dispute between an individual and the group, I always arrange an initial meeting with all of them. I'm afraid that talking to the basketball team without Maria would be just one more significant event from which Maria is excluded. It would send the message that she is not wanted, that something is wrong with her.

    As a school mediator, I would offer them my services, precisely explaining what mediation can do for the parties. (I would hope that in every school, harassment would require some punishment/sanction, and I would explain that the mediation process would have no influence on that.) If I can make it clear that I understand each person's feelings and desire to have a successful team, there is the chance that at least some will try mediation.

    If this happens, the next important question is: who is the other party in the mediation process? Is it Rochelle Bostwhistle, or a group of students involved in the harassment, or the entire varsity basketball team? The history of these conflicts creates complicated matrixes of personal and group relationships, so it would probably require a significant amount of exploratory conversation to reveal the road to a successful process.

    Mrs. Dragana Cuk Milankov
    School Mediation Program
    Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit
    Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro


    For a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that there is only one clearly defined party, I do not think this profoundly serious situation is a case for mediation.

    The girls must be confronted by a team of adults, including someone whom the girls will recognize as a spiritual authority (priest, pastor, etc.), a professional authority (psychologist), and a parental and/or school authority. The adults need to reflect to the girls the harm they are doing to themselves by either perpetrating or covering up for the perpetrators who are abusing Maria.

    What these girls are doing is akin to what the Nazi's did to the Jews, what the Hutus did to the Tutsis, what Southern Whites did to the Freedom Riders...the dynamic is ancient and abhorrent. The key, however, is to consistently and compassionately help the girls appreciate the toll that objectification takes on themselves, on the "objectifiers."

    By dehumanizing another human being, they are dehumanizing themselves. That is a horrific price to pay for a relatively short period of feeling falsely powerful and self-righteous.

    Maluhia e ka pono (peace with justice)

    Dr. Shyrl Topp Matias
    Punahou School
    Honolulu, Hawaii

    The cultural context of this situation is quite different from our schools in Portugal. Indeed, here schools are more academic-oriented and we don't have a strong sports curricula. The majority of youth sport clubs and sport associations run independently and sport practices take place after the normal school day ends.

    In the reported situation, not only the students, but the coach, the principal, and the parents are being judged for their personal or professional efficacy and competence. How they act-- including if they ignore and/or don't act at all--will influence how the situation plays out. Adult inaction has led to serious levels of bullying and harassment in schools all over the world.

    One practical approach to this case is something called the Pikas Method. Pikas was a Swedish psychologist and a school counselor who advocated for a common method for the treatment of "mobbing" (group bullying).

    Pikas' method shares features with other No Blame Approaches and, more recently, with Restorative Justice practices and ideals. It gives voice to everyone involved in the situation, provides an opportunity for parties to reflect upon the different perspectives and personal feelings, and enables parties to come up with a solution to the problem.

    Pikas recommends starting the intervention with short individual meetings with the offenders and end up with the victim. After this cycle of individual meetings, he recommends follow-up meetings to make sure that everyone is doing what they have agreed to do. Only then, after having successfully fulfilled their individual commitments, does he move to group meetings and collective reflection.

    To learn more about the method, see Tackling Bullying in Your School: A Practical Handbook for Teachers, by Sharp, S. & Smith, P.K. (1993) published by Routledge.

    Ana Almeida
    Universidade do Minho
    Instituto de Estudos da Criança
    Braga, Portugal

    Please encourage the girls to mediate!

    This is a fine opportunity for everyone to express themselves appropriately instead of harassing Goode. My recommendation is to meet with Goode and each player individually first. Although this is time consuming, if you start with Goode's list, you may not have to mediate with every player. Private sessions are a must.

    Connie Mahoney
    Mediation Coordinator
    Kiley Middle School
    Springfield, Massachusetts

    At a quick glance, this conflict seems like a good case for more of a restorative practices approach. I would refer you to Belinda Hopkin's web site where she talks about Restorative Justice and bullying in schools.

    This may not be a case for a Restorative Justice conference per se, but a meeting of the entire team to talk about how they treat one another would fall into a Restorative Justice approach.

    Marge Bleiweis
    Conflict Resolution Specialist
    Safe and Drug Free Youth Office
    Fairfax County Public Schools
    Fairfax, Virginia

    This is bullying in no uncertain terms, and this kind of behavior is unacceptable. Aggressive action by bullies needs to be exposed for what it really is, and those who engage in it need help to express themselves appropriately to the right person. What would happen if Maria could not cope with this and took irreversible action?

    I would suggest mediation with the team with the proviso that if Maria continues to be harassed in any way by those who should be supporting her, the basketball season will be cancelled until the affair is resolved. The people are more important than the sports program.

    Parents should also be encouraged to take a moral stand here too as these important life lessons need to be learned early on.

    Debbie Dugdall
    Human Relationship & Behaviour Management Advisor
    Breakthrough Plus
    Devon, United Kingdom

    I think the first thing you should do is talk to Maria and see how she feels about this situation. Does she still want to be part of the team?

    If she does, then you might talk to every team member and inform them of the disadvantages to the team of continuing to treat Maria in this way. If you focus on the team and not on Maria, the players will probably change their behavior.

    Arturo Rodallegas
    Lawyer/Mediator specializing in Alternative Dispute Resolution
    Durango, Mexico

    I'm not sure mediation is the answer in this situation.

    One possible option, similar to the restorative justice approach, would be to have a team meeting to discuss the conflict that includes Ms. Goode, her parents, the coaching staff, and others who are impacted. At the meeting, have Ms. Goode, her parents, the coaching staff, etc. talk about the incident, the harm being done, and how they have been affected by the harassment.

    This approach will hopefully allow the team members to see how their actions are affecting the larger community and not just one individual. Just think of the messages the team is sending to the school, to future recruits, and to the community by engaging in such inappropriate, demoralizing acts!

    Brett Carter
    Assistant Dean of Students
    University of North Carolina at Greensboro
    Greensboro, North Carolina

    I would not attempt to use mediation in this situation of mob bullying, as I would not want to empower those engaging in this bullying behavior.

    I would consider using peacemaking circles to restore justice to this young woman and the entire school community. Using this approach would allow those in the school community to speak out about this toxic environment in a safe environment. Peacemaking circles would give the entire community an opportunity to come together and create a bully-free environment for all.

    Niki Bledin
    Toronto, Canada

    Interesting and worrying dilemma. First thing you have to do is a risk assessment on doing nothing and letting the situation simmer. If you do nothing this might push Ms. Goode over the edge and I would be worried about her mental well being.

    Someone needs to step up and explain to these students that in terms of the school policy, the status quo is not an option.

    Peer pressure as we all know is an extremely powerful force. In my experience when you get a large group conflict, there are often many and varied opinions and experiences of the situation within "the group." I would imagine there would be a number of students feeling uncomfortable about the situation.

    I would talk to the students one to one first, get a sense of what they are gaining by continuing this conflict, and try to suss out the ring leaders. I would expect you would get to the heart of the issue this way and mediation would help to work out a way forward for all.

    It is a bit like eating an with the situation in small chunks. (Sorry to all the vegetarians; would never really eat an elephant!)

    Carol Barrett
    Mediation in Education Development Officer
    Scottish Mediation Network
    Edinburgh, Scotland

    Peer mediation programs should not address "gang bullying." Students should refer these situations to adults. It is very hard for students to counteract bullying without alienating themselves or making themselves a possible target.

    Student mediators can exercise positive peer pressure through their own anti-bullying campaign, using the school communication system [announcements, posters, newspaper] to deliver their message. Witnesses to bullying should be encouraged to report what they see.

    My program identifies a specific individual who has been injured and the person who has committed the injury. We often hear that the perpetrator didn't realize that they were being a bully, with the solution being positive actions to change this behavior.

    The intervention should be non-punitive until the major culprits can be identified. Once these individuals are identified, they need to be dealt with separately and punitively if they refuse to stop.

    Athletic teams should have honor. There should be suspensions from play for those who do not demonstrate ethical behavior, regardless of the impact on the team. The students who led the chant should receive strict consequences. If they do not, the lesson is that "we tolerate bullying."

    The administration should identify bullying generally (not this particular child's mistreatment) as a school- wide problem, recruiting parents, the community and the press to help. Perhaps the movies "Remember the Titans" and/or "Bang, Bang, You're Dead" can be shown to the community to get community involvement and support.

    Until this is seen as a systemic problem, and not just for one individual, these situations will continue.

    Deborah Trust
    School Counselor
    Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School
    Fort Myers, Florida

    I agree this is a very challenging, although not unusual, situation.

    When we assist schools in creating a peer mediation program, we suggest that it be used in conjunction with all district and school rules and regulations. The school administration and coach have dropped the ball on this one as it is their responsibility to protect students from this kind of behavior. The student's parents also need help in understanding their daughter's rights and how to have them enforced.

    In the meantime, the mediation coordinator might continue her "intake" process by gathering additional information from the other team mates. By alerting the team that this may be headed to mediation and that others are aware of the situation, you are shining a light on this problem.

    Kathy Wian
    Newark, Delaware

    This is not an issue for peer mediation. Mediation is not a proper venue for harassment and bullying to this extent. I have been our peer mediation advisor for several years. Maybe school counselors could help. I hope there were disciplinary consequences for the young lady leading the chant.

    Pat Fredrick
    Salem Middle School
    Salem, New Jersey

    I agree with your instincts: this is not a case for peer mediation. Conducting a mediation will only serve to "re-victimize" Ms. Goode. It might be possible after the "offenders" have been identified and are screened as candidates for victim-offended mediation, but peer mediators usually do not have that kind of training

    There is a discipline issue here that has being ignored, and as such the message being sent to the school population is that this behavior is acceptable. What is the bullying policy at the school?

    If the administration cannot identify the 'culprits,' because the team is being silent, my thought would be to discipline the whole team, as they all are participating at this point. Student athletes probably have a conduct policy that they signed, and playing basketball isn't a right but a privilege. Has this team earned the right to represent their school?

    Lastly, a facilitated discussion with team members sounds like a great idea. There are some members, I would be sure, that are uncomfortable with the behavior. Provide them with the opportunity, not to tell on the others, but to share their thoughts about what has been happening. If they felt adult support, they also might be less intimidated by these bullies.

    Deborah Belanger
    Portland, Maine

  • Richard's Thoughts...

  • A few themes and ideas are important to highlight in reference to last month's dilemma. Most of these ideas are present in the thoughtful comments we received from so many of you.

    1. Bullying and harassment of the degree outlined in the scenario is not appropriate for peer mediation, at least not as a first resort. Adults need to intervene and stop the bullying.

    This is not so say that peer mediators, or adult/student mediation teams, should not meet with parties after adults have intervened (that is, if the parties are interested in it). Restorative Justice processes provide a useful model for such an intervention.

    Because much information remained hidden in the scenario described, a case could be made for holding exploratory meetings with parties. Such meetings, decidedly NOT mediation sessions, might yield helpful leads that might enable administrators to identify those responsible for the bullying.

    (Only people with excellent mediation skills--and without disciplinary responsibility; that function should be performed by others--should conduct these meetings. As many of you mentioned, meet with team members individually or in very small groups. In this way the often intricate maze of relationships and alliances can be untangled, and students can be put at ease so that they might reveal who is responsible for what.)

    But bullying is a matter for swift and skilled adult intervention.

    2. The case represents a colossal failure on the part of both the coach and the administrators. Large group disputes almost always indicate a lack of responsiveness on the part of school-based educators, and this example is no exception. At a minimum, the basketball season should have been terminated until the situation was resolved.

    3. There are many resources available to help with bullying issues. In addition to those mentioned above, I would also call your attention to two School Mediation Associates' publications: The School Mediator's Field Guide: Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups & Other Daily Challenges has extensive chapters both on mediating conflicts that involve harassment and on mediating large group disputes. And the February 2002 issue of "The School Mediator," entitled "Stop Mediating These Conflicts Now," is an explanation of why peer mediation is not an appropriate intervention for bullying.

  • What Actually Happened

  • After a team meeting with administrators, two students admitted to ripping Maria's jacket. They agreed to pay for a new one, and they were suspended for three games.

    There was no police involvement, and Maria's parents did not pursue legal action.

    No one stepped forward to take responsibility for the other acts of harassment.

    The administrators are looking for someone to come to school and conduct a training on teamwork and sportsmanship.

    After the aforementioned meeting, the basketball team began to play a little better and win games.

    The peer mediation program never got involved in the case.

  • 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.

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