Looking into the law: three strategies

There is an alternative to resolving disputes in court - the process of mediation - and now high schools are trying it.

Students and teachers from four Boston-area public high schools conducted a seminar on mediation at a conference held Oct. 26 by the Massachusetts Association for Law Related Education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The participants were all students of a program taught last spring by members of the Dorchester District Court Mediation Unit.

The object of the program was to give students and teachers hands-on experience in the mediation process used by the court, and to consider the use of mediation in high school disputes.

Susan Chapin, a teacher at Cathedral High School, said, ''Mediation is a method for dispute settlements in which we have a third party present. Rather than . . . the third party imposing a settlement, both parties are to talk out their viewpoint on the situation until they've reached a resolution which is acceptable to them both.''

What the mediators are working toward is a written agreement that is accepted by both sides. Although the signed agreement is not legally binding, some 89 percent of all agreements in the Dorchester District Court are abided by, said Della Rice, court services coordinator.

According to Judge Vincent Leahy, the use of mediation has also proved successful in the Middlesex Family and Probate Court. Judge Leahy said that some 80 percent of the divorce cases brought to the Family Service Office for temporary orders are successfully mediated.

The mediation seminar showed a process in which three trained high school students counseled two audience volunteer disputants. The students - Leeja-Anne Stillman, Madison Park High School; Melissa Sparks, Dana Hall School, Wellesley; and Julie Gershom of Brookline High School, now attending UMass - went through a step-by-step procedure.

Melissa said the use of mediation in her high school has helped to eliminate a lot of the hostility of going through the disciplinary committee.

''Students feel they have an equal chance with a teacher-student panel of mediators,'' she said.

'' While a judge tells the parties what to do, we suggest ideas to the disputants by saying 'maybe you could . . . or what if . . . ;' it is less intimidating,'' said Leeja-Anne.

''The resolution in the end is going to be better if they come to the agreement themselves, because it's their problem,'' she said.

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