YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Talk It Out, Don't Duke It, Mediation Teaches Students

December 18, 1988|BARBARA KOH | Times Staff Writer

Sean says Steve shoved him in the hallway. Donna says Sheila swore at her. Susan says Jose took her pencil. Bruce says Bill took his girlfriend.

But instead of duking it out, students at Santa Monica's John Adams Middle School can mediate.

The program, organized by Santa Monica-based Dispute Resolution Services, unites quarreling students with peer mediators who help them settle disagreements. It aims to reduce fights and give students a cooperative outlook and a sense of responsibility, officials say.

"Conflict is a natural result of living," said Judy Goldman, director of Dispute Resolution Services' mediation program for schools, which includes the service at John Adams.

Facilities Donated

The organization (formerly the Neighborhood Justice Center) launched the $117,143-a-year program last year to try to "contain, focus and resolve (disputes) so they don't distract from (students') education" and to show that "it's not necessarily true that there has to be a winner and a loser."

The program runs on grants from the city of Santa Monica, Los Angeles County and the Los Angeles County Bar Foundation. Supplies, facilities and teacher time are donated by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

Besides the peer mediation at John Adams, the program includes seminars on communication and conflict resolution for teachers, administrators, parents and students at the middle school and at four Santa Monica elementary schools. Program officials hope to start student mediation at Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica by the spring of 1989.

Must Keep Secrets

But for now, John Adams' peer mediation service, which is confidential and voluntary, is the only one in Southern California, according to Goldman, a former elementary school principal and an official of the National Assn. for Mediation in Education.

In 1985, there were 35 school mediation programs in the United States; now they number in the hundreds, she said. Programs of various sorts can be found in Phoenix, New York state, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area.

The 44 mediators at John Adams applied or were nominated for the position by fellow students and teachers. They were selected for their ability to keep secrets, listen carefully and make up assignments that they may miss when they are pulled out of class to mediate.

Several mediators said they wanted to participate because they thought it would help in their own relationships with siblings and friends.

"My friend was (a mediator) last year, and she said it was fun," said seventh-grader Kokinda Johnson. "She said it automatically stays with you. Instead of fighting, you solve your problems."

The students, who are of various ethnic backgrounds, went through 25 hours of training. At a recent session for new mediators, the students mediated for Goldilocks and one of the bears and for Cinderella and her stepmother. They learned to summarize people's statements and practiced conveying frustration without blowing up. Instead of "Why did you cut in front of me in the lunch line, you jerk!", it was "I feel upset when you get in front of me because I'm hungry and I waited in line and you didn't."

From late March to June, the mediators heard 116 fellow students in about 45 cases, according to Goldman. About 230 quarreling students are expected to go through the mediation center in Room 14 this year.

Look Misunderstood

The mediators encounter cases that begin with everything from name calling to a shove to a look. One argument, mediator Carrie Green recalls, started when "a girl misunderstood a look. She thought two girls were challenging her to fight, so she challenged them to fight after school."

Kids who actually throw punches are generally assigned to study and clean up school grounds on Saturday or ordered to stay after school, says Vice Principal Ardis Bonozo. They also lose "merits," points that bring gym privileges and special outings and assemblies. But if they go to mediation, they can earn back the merits.

Ricky Casillas, 13, said he used mediation after a fight in September with fellow eighth-grader Manuel Perez. "I was calling him 'fat belly.' He'd call me 'big head,' " Casillas said. The name calling led to a fight in the schoolyard, a redeye for Casillas and a bloody nose for Perez. The principal urged them to mediate, warning that otherwise they might get detention or forfeit merits.

In Room 14, the boys agreed to four rules: Try to solve the problem; no name calling or physical fighting; no interrupting; be as honest as you can.

Each told his side of the story, and the mediators, who Casillas said "were really kind," asked what the boys could do to solve the problem and prevent it from happening again. The solution: "Shake hands and talk it over before we fight," Perez said. "We're friends now."

'Good Feeling'

Los Angeles Times Articles