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