Programs Target Student Violence Conflict-Resolution and Mediation Efforts Spread to Schools across the Country

Article excerpt

MOST parents have tried to get their children to talk out differences instead of fight over them. It's a lesson that typically requires patience, time, and repetition, and it's one that schools are increasingly taking up as well, impelled by the growing violence among American youth.

In the worlds of elementary and secondary education, the effort to replace violence with reason usually comes under the headings of conflict resolution and mediation. A number of nonprofit organizations around the country prepare curricula or study guides used in many public schools. People active in the field estimate that 5,000 programs have been set up in school districts throughout the United States, reaching hundreds of thousands of children.

The approaches of these programs may vary somewhat, but the goal is constant: to instill the "skills" needed to settle disputes before they turn violent.

Irene Cooper-Basch, of the Community Board Program in San Francisco, says her agency helps set up separate classes in mediation at the elementary-school level, while middle and high schools often work the materials into their regular course work. "Whatever works for that school," is the basic guideline, Ms. Cooper-Basch says. "We try to help students hear the other side of the story," she explains, and learn "anger management."

The Community Board's "conflict manager curricula" is also used in juvenile-detention centers in California and New Mexico. The whole state of West Virginia has adopted their "model."

The Washington-based Center to Prevent Handgun Violence is another agency active in the field. Its STAR (Straight Talk About Risks) curriculum is used in 29 school districts, including some of the biggest, such as New York's and Miami's. There's a "tremendous waiting list" of schools that want the program, says Gwen Fitzgerald, the center's associate director of communication.

"We try to make it as interactive as possible," says Ms. Fitzgerald. Skits, role playing, and discussions are used. "We're trying to give them skills in recognizing situations that lead to violence, and the importance of talking with someone, or turning and walking away instead of lashing out...." A fundamental message of the program, Fitzgerald adds, is "that guns don't make you safe." Middle school is a particular focus, she says, in order to reach kids before weapon-carrying and violence become ingrained.

The National Association for Mediation in Education (NAME), based in Amherst, Mass., describes itself as a "clearinghouse" for information on how to start violence-prevention programs in schools. Among its approaches is a "school-based mediation model" designed to involve teachers, students, administrators, and eventually parents in mediation training. NAME also offers a curriculum called "law-related education" that teaches the concepts of fairness and due process.

Annette Townley, NAME's director, says that the recently passed federal Safe Schools Act should give added impulse to mediation programs. The federal crime bill, still under debate, may also include measures that encourage such programs in schools. Ms. Townley has some concern, however, that educators may view violence-prevention as the "latest fad," rather than an enduring commitment. …