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
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.
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
"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.
Work toward a solution.
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
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. …