Programs Target Student Violence

Conflict-resolution and mediation efforts spread to schools across the country

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 commitment.

One agency, Children's Creative Response to Conflict, has had a program at Public School 230 in Brooklyn, N.Y., for two years. That school serves ``an immigrant community with 30 different languages and lots of conflict,'' says Warren Wolf, workshop coordinator with the Nyack, N.Y.-based group.

Mediation, bias-awareness, and conflict-resolution are taught to schoolchildren there, and students from the third through sixth grades go out on the playground wearing T-shirts identifying them as mediators. Children's Creative Response to Conflict has active branches in Ohio, California, Arizona, South Dakota, and Washington, D.C.

Materials produced by the Peace Education Foundation, based in Miami, are used in some 20,000 US and Canadian schools. As distinct from peer-mediation programs that focus on a select group of students in a school, the foundation's approach is to develop conflict-resolution abilities in every student and teacher, says its founder, Fran Schmidt. ``It's more of a prevention-type program, so children will know that name-calling and other behaviors will only escalate the problem.''

The Peace Education Foundation curriculum centers on six ``Rules for Fighting Fair'': Identify the problem; focus on the problem; attack the problem, not the person; listen with an open mind; treat a person's feelings with respect; take responsibility for your actions.

Educators for Social Responsibility (ERS), in Cambridge, Mass., has spearheaded some of the longest-running conflict-resolution programs in schools. Larry Dieringer, executive director of ERS, says this year could mark a milestone for mediation programs, since the federal Centers for Disease Control and prevention will fund a three-year study to assess the effectiveness of the programs in New York schools. ``There has been very little in-depth research as yet,'' he says.

Regarding effectiveness, ``90 percent of what we know is anecdotal,'' admits Cooper-Basch. Some schools say their drop-out rates are down since conflict-resolution programs began.

One reason comparative research can be difficult in this area, says Cooper-Basch, is that schools often ``don't necessarily want an accurate picture of violence on their campuses.'' So records of incidents like weapons possession were not kept in many cases, and it's hard to assess just how things were before mediation programs were in place.

Beyond that, she adds, ``It's hard to measure violence that never happened.'' In other words, you can't be certain just how many potentially violent situations were defused by conflict-resolution methods.

And what about public education's academic mission? Doesn't all this building of mediation and other skills take valuable time away from that? ``For me it's the fourth `R conflict resolution,'' Cooper-Basch says. She and others in the field add that if an ability to settle disputes peacefully isn't nurtured, the problems of weapons and violence that come later can profoundly disrupt the learning process.

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