Lessons in Getting Along: Methods Target School Violence, Conflict

Article excerpt

Tension boils between two girls over the affection of a boy.

Friends get into a name-calling match after one accuses the other of being a sissy.

Two rival boys bump into each other, and tempers flare.

Before you know it, fists are flying.

Fighting is a leading cause of suspensions from schools in the St. Louis area. And schools are fighting back with "conflict management" programs that teach students how to handle tension before it escalates into violence.

The techniques range from giving tips on handling anger, to rewarding students for every "fight-free" day, to training them to mediate disputes.

Educators say the programs work, reducing the number of fights and giving students skills they can use through life.

The director of pupil personnel in the Parkway district, Linda Tooley, said the programs in her district also reduce suspensions and stress-related referrals to school nurses.

"We work things out like adults," said Kara Townsend, a junior and "peer mediator" at Hazelwood East High School.

Violent Society

As society has become more violent, so have young people. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala has labeled youth violence "a major public-health crisis." In a national poll a year ago, a majority of suburban and urban school administrators said schools were less safe than five years earlier.

In St. Louis public schools, fighting has been the most common reason for suspension. Last year, the district logged 1,434 suspensions for fighting, or 16 percent of the total.

A growing number of high schools, junior highs and middle schools in the area are training students to be on mediation teams. Mediation follows a set procedure designed to get arguing students to sign a contract to settle their problem.

The process starts when a student reports an argument or disagreement to a teacher, administrator or peer mediator. The student may be a party to the conflict or someone who knows about it.

"Students will say, `Somebody is getting in my face, and if we don't get mediated, there's going to be trouble,' " said Carole Clary, assistant principal at Parkway West High School.

A school official sets up a meeting with the clashing students and two mediators, sitting around a table. An adult is nearby, but not in the room. The students agree to ground rules:

Avoid name-calling and put-downs.

Do not interrupt.

Stay seated.

Work toward a solution.

Be honest.

Keep what is said confidential.

Rather than judging who is right or wrong, the mediators listen and help the others present cases, understand positions and reach a solution acceptable to both.

"Only once in five years have kids left mediation and gone out and got in a fight," Clary said.

Sarah Detweiler, co-president of a student group that handles disputes at Hazelwood East, said mediation often reconciles friends who have fought over "something silly."

"They wouldn't be there if communication was going on," she said.

But once in a while, anger takes over. "We've had to get on the table to get in between two people ready to clash," Detweiler said. At that point, an administrator or counselor might step in. …