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OC HIGH / STUDENT NEWS & VIEWS : CONFLICT AS AN INTEREST : At Westminster High, teens learn mediation to examine and understand violence and to counter it with self-empowerment and self-confidence.

January 20, 1994|NA TASUKON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES, Na Tasukon is a senior at Westminster High School.

A student walking home from school is confronted by gang members who offer the ultimatum: Join the gang or die. Another student is stabbed in the back in the school parking lot because of a "look" given another student earlier that day. A student of one race tells a student of another that "they" don't belong on campus.

Distressing incidents such as these--fueled by ethnic differences, sexual tensions, drugs and other issues--are becoming increasingly familiar to students.

At many schools, efforts to control increasing violence on campus have come in the form of suspension or detention. The idea is to assign blame and inflict punishment, often without examining the matter or finding its underlying cause.

At Westminster High School, a different approach is being taken.

On this campus, conflict mediation classes teach teen-agers how to examine and understand violence, how to counter it through self-empowerment and how to deal with it using self-confidence.

While there is little that teen-agers can do directly to correct the economic and social injustices of their world, they can learn through conflict mediation how to face the violence that exists within it.

"Conflict mediation at Westminster High has grown so much since its beginning that now we have 50 trained student mediators to serve the campus," said resource specialist Sharon Rawls, who coordinates the conflict mediation class and acts as the school's At Risk/Cultural Diversity Mentor.

"The program has successfully resolved more than 80 cases and has attracted the attention of numerous schools throughout Orange County," Rawls said.

The Westminster High program received an Orange County Outstanding Recognition Award in 1993 from Supervisor Harriett M. Weider.

The class is the most recent metamorphosis of a program started in 1991 to help deal with a burst of on-campus violence in late 1990. It is based on a program established in San Francisco to deal with community-based conflicts.

The conflict mediation class is a semester long, requiring 25 hours of instruction. It is given before and after school and is now administered through the district's adult education department.

Those who complete the course receive state certificates in mediation.

The instruction helps students learn how to turn conflict into an opportunity for growth and understanding before it becomes violent, making them feel competent enough to participate in the resolution of their own disputes. They are taught that conflict is a natural human state often accompanying change and is best approached with skill and a sense of understanding.

Rather than viewing conflict as negative, mediation students are told to perceive conflict as a process that signals change--neither positive nor negative, good nor bad--that is a part of their lives. When they wake up each morning, for example, they may have an inner conflict about whether they should get out of bed and go to school.

When a dispute occurs at Westminster High, those involved are asked to participate in mediation. If they agree, they meet with trained student mediators in a conference room in the hopes of reaching a mutual solution.

"The student mediators are not there to solve the disputants' problems for them. Rather, they are there to assist the disputants in solving their problems themselves," Rawls said.

"Disputants are each given a chance to speak their own side of the conflict . . . (and to listen) to other points of view. The program is very effective because there is a greater opportunity for understanding and cooperation when mediation is on a student-to-student level," she said.

Student mediator Ryan Nguyen said the most rewarding part of mediation is seeing the anger between disputants decrease right before your eyes and result in a positive outcome.

Vice principal Neil Snowden said: "At first I was skeptical of allowing teens to deal with disputes and disputants on their own, without the intervention of adults, but then, that is the purpose of conflict mediation--empowering youth to be responsible."

Snowden is now a big supporter of the program and its 98% success rate. Before mediation, he said, students suspended for fighting or altercations often returned to his office because suspension did little to solve the problem.

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Rawls said disputants often have no understanding of what really took place in the conflict. And when a dispute involves both aggressive and passive personalities, the passive side rarely has the opportunity to speak out. With mediation, everyone is heard. As teens go through mediation, she said, a sense of comprehension and acceptance develops. From there, the participants move into communication, discussion of problems and, finally, resolution.

As alternatives to violence are created, doors open for those who may have grown up believing that violence was the only way out of a problem, Rawls said.

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