Schools Try Conflict Resolution to Help Students Stay Focused on Facts, Not Fights

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On the surface, Primary School 198 here is no different from many other inner-city schools: It is beset by chronic violence that shows few signs of abating.

But while many schools are installing more metal detectors or getting tougher with young criminals, P.S. 198 is taking innovative steps to teach students how to counter school violence.

One afternoon late last year, for example, fifth-grader Mitchell Quito was in the school's cafeteria when a fight broke out between two of his friends. Instead of watching the boys exchange punches or waiting for a teacher, he offered to help.

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"I took them into the gym," he recalls. "I asked them what happened and then I asked them how they felt." After several minutes of talking, Mitchell explains, the two boys calmed down and apologized to each other. "They didn't fight anymore, and they became friends," he says.

Mitchell was no ordinary student offering to help. He has been trained as a mediator as part of the curriculum designed by the New York-based Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP).

Established in 1985 by Educators for Social Responsibility Metropolitan (N.Y.) Area and the New York City Board of Education, RCCP is a school-based program in conflict resolution and intergroup relations. It serves more than 150,000 children in 325 schools from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Anchorage, Alaska.

Modern-day conflict resolution traces its roots to the 1920s, when educators sought to improve relations between labor groups and management, according to Linda Lantieri, cofounder and national director of RCCP. It enjoyed a renaissance in the 1980s, when numerous books that offered step-by-step tips on how to negotiate conflicts at work and at home hit the bestseller lists.

Today, many schools are turning to it as yet another way to tackle the conflict and violence among youths that has crept into school halls.

According to FBI estimates, for instance, juvenile arrest rates for violent crimes more than tripled between 1965 and 1990. In a study released earlier this year by James Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston, murders by teens between the ages of 14 and 17 increased 172 percent from 1985 to 1994.

The problem, of course, is not limited to urban areas. "Violence is not just an inner-city problem," says Ms. Lantieri. "Violence is America's problem. And programs like RCCP are not only about stopping the violence. They're about increasing the climate of nonviolence."

Conflict-resolution programs are by no means limited to tough city schools. Indeed, the second school system where RCCP was established is in Anchorage, Alaska. Lantieri estimates that there are thousands of organizations implementing conflict resolution programs in schools and communities throughout the US.

And there are a variety of approaches. In Detroit, Alicia Rene Farris runs a conflict resolution organization called the Youth Nonviolence Training Program (YNTP). Created in 1992, it is community-based and springs from the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. "Our basic philosophy is to establish a cadre of nonviolent leaders," says Ms. Farris. "And everything is built around the nonviolent social activism of Dr. King."

YNTP has a two-pronged approach. It teaches kids teamwork, how to defuse disagreements, and success-sustaining strategies - and then has them perform community-service projects. It also organizes events such as rap concerts and costume balls that have positive, nonviolent messages.

Unlike YNTP, the RCCP curriculum is more school-oriented and involves an amalgam of lessons built into the school day. Students learn to communicate and cooperate, acknowledge other people's feelings, and appreciate diversity. RCCP staffers also work with parents to foster a peaceful environment at home.

Some experts argue that it's important to start teaching conflict-resolution skills at a young age. "It's better to help build the child than to rebuild the teenager," says Mr. Fox. "And it's considerably less expensive."

Student response at P.S. 198 has been largely positive. "I feel like I'm making a difference. I'm helping people listen to each other," says Joakima Hemmings, a fifth-grader. "We have the opportunity to cause less fights and more peace," says Christopher Bailey, another fifth-grader.

Mitchell Quito says that what he learned has reached into his life beyond the schoolyard. "Last spring, I was playing in a baseball game and a kid on the other team wanted to fight," Mitchell recalls. "I said no and walked away."

Some experts, however, question the overall efficacy of conflict resolution programs. Jack Levin, director of the Program for the Study of Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University in Boston, who is doing a study of school-based violence prevention and reduction programs throughout Massachusetts, contends that schools should concentrate more on keeping kids busy both before and after school.

"These [conflict-resolution] programs simply are ineffective when it comes to extreme forms of violence - the very forms of violence that seem to be plaguing our major cities now," he says. "If we really want to do something about violence ... we have to provide healthy alternatives."

He recommends lengthening the school day so that students are supervised while their parents work and offering kids productive alternatives such as summer jobs, after-school athletic programs, and adequate and effective day care.

Others argue that implementing conflict resolution programs in schools will do little good unless schools undergo more fundamental changes.

"It's like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," says Terry Moe, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif., and professor of political science at Stanford University. "You can have these programs, but if the underlying problem is more fundamental, the programs aren't going to work very well."

The real problem, he argues, is that schools tend to be large, bureaucratic, and impersonal institutions where kids receive little attention. Small schools, on the other hand, offer students a better sense of community and more attention. "Schools should be restructuring themselves," Mr. Moe says. "They should be small."

Most people agree that there is no simple solution to reducing violence among children. The effort involves schools, parents, and children themselves.

"It's a process. It's a long process," says Lantieri. "But you have to hang in there."

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