It is laudable that Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder — despite their shortcomings in other areas — denounced school suspensions last week as the sham they have proven to be. Not only is there no evidence that out-of-school suspensions and zero-tolerance measures improve the school environment, there is abundant evidence that they disproportionately affect students of color and those with disabilities.
Although they are only beginning to spell out exactly how students can be effectively disciplined in lieu of suspension, federal officials suggested that schools offer “staff training on conflict resolution,” among other remedies. While I am not so bold or naïve to suggest that conflict resolution is the same as effective discipline, I am hoping that these seemingly innocuous words will be at the heart of the new nationwide regulations. This is far from certain given the preponderance of alternative responses, such as increasing rewards or positive reinforcement for desired behavior, but now is the time for advocates of school-based mediation and restorative practices to make their voices heard.
In some jurisdictions they are already being heard: Joshua Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, all but endorsed restorative practices at a public event in Rockville, Md., last year when he encouraged administrators to find ways to address negative behavior without removing students from school. Moreover, my organization, the Conflict Resolution Center of Montgomery County, is in touch with the Maryland State Department of Education about training in restorative practices as well as the staff of two schools — City Springs Elementary/Middle in Baltimore and E.L. Haynes Public Charter in Washington, D.C. — that are implementing classroom circles, community conferences, restorative questions and restorative discipline. We have already started offering training in restorative practices to a few local schools.
Out of all of our programs and services, I believe that our In-School Mediation Program — developed in late 2011 as a means of increasing our response-time to school-based conflicts and our overall output — has the strongest potential to prevent suspension, improve student behavior, and transform the school environment from one of tension to one of collaboration.
Unlike the more commonly used peer mediation model, our mediators all come from outside the school and are all adults with at least 40 hours of training. They are volunteers and receive no compensation for their work other than the satisfaction of preventing a fight, suspension or broken friendship. With the help of the counselors and administrators, they identify simmering conflicts in the school, prioritize those conflicts based on level of intensity, prepare each individual involved, and hold the mediation — leaving after a three-hour shift or once the work is complete.
To give a shining example: At one of our schools in late 2013, we received a rare referral involving a conflict between a student and a teacher. Referrals generally come from counselors, administrators and the students themselves, but this one came from another teacher concerned about the situation. Because the overwhelming majority of referrals involve student-to-student conflicts, which are handled using the same process but with less concerns about power dynamics and consent, there was some anxiety around this case. Furthermore, it is often difficult to get teachers to agree to mediate with a student even with the encouragement of other staff. In this particular case, however, this was not a problem.
For the sake of confidentiality, the student will be called “Kayla,” and the teacher will be called “Ms. Jackson.” Kayla is an Honor Roll student who, nevertheless, had struggled in Ms. Jackson’s class academically and behaviorally. Ms. Jackson attributed Kayla’s standoffish behavior in class to the below-par grade she received the previous quarter as well as Ms. Jackson’s own refusal to raise the mark despite a parent-teacher conference and promises by Kayla to make-up missed assignments. Kayla also admitted she had anger issues, which contributed to her strained relationship with Ms. Jackson. Kayla took responsibility for finding ways to prevent public outbursts. Both agreed that mediation could be effective in setting boundaries and relieving tensions given that they would have to see each other almost daily for the rest of the school year.
The mediation was scheduled later that day during Ms. Jackson’s free period. Kayla was surprisingly vocal in telling her story despite the three adults (including two mediators) in the room. Ms. Jackson listened intently and told her own side in great detail. Kayla quickly conceded that her classroom behavior and work ethic were subpar but explained that it was not due to a grudge over grades but her perception that Ms. Jackson was misinterpreting her behavior and unfairly calling her out for it.
One incident occurred the previous day when Ms. Jackson gave instructions and noticed that Kayla and another student were talking instead of getting to work. Ms. Jackson said she told both students to move into their work areas, but only the other student complied, while Kayla dragged her feet and had “an attitude.” Kayla explained that the other student was giving her a pep talk because she was upset about something that had happened earlier. She was planning to get to work as soon as they wrapped up their conversation.
The mediators then reflected that Kayla’s tendency to overreact when upset — sometimes even storming out of the classroom — was an issue they both were trying to address in different ways. They agreed that this was causing them the most anxiety and proceeded to collaborate on a solution.
During a brainstorm facilitated by the mediators, Ms. Jackson and Kayla decided that if Kayla felt close to a meltdown for any reason, she would raise her hand and ask to go to the bathroom — when what she really needed to do was take a private moment to cool down — and Ms. Jackson would grant her permission. The idea was that a slight subterfuge would take the pressure off Kayla, who was worried what her peers would say if they knew she was upset or angry. At the same time, it would allow Ms. Jackson to feel assured that an outburst would not occur within the classroom and give her a private means to check on Kayla if the situation called for it. Kayla also agreed to pick up her performance in class, to ask if she needed help, and to take responsibility for managing her anger. For her part Ms. Jackson agreed to refrain from redirecting Kayla publicly unless it was absolutely necessary.
The agreement was written up by the mediators and signed by both participants, who each received a copy. Due to the cheerfulness of the participants after the session, the mediators decided that no formal follow-up would be necessary but encouraged Ms. Jackson and Kayla to return if they had any further concerns.
The whole process took about an hour and a half. Despite the fast pace of a school day and the difficulty inherent in discussing serious issues face-to-face, Ms. Jackson said the mediation was “completely worth it” and suggested that the entire staff and administration be trained in it.
While this was an exceptional case in many ways, even ordinary mediation sessions can turn a potentially violent situation into a nonviolent, collaborative discussion with little time and resources expended. In just two years we have seen suspension rates drop while receiving participant satisfaction rates upwards of 85 percent. Moreover, administrators and counselors have reported a positive impact on school culture, observing students independently using skills learned in mediation to self-manage conflict. We expect the trend to continue as we strengthen and standardize our program so that it can be easily replicated.
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Having helped conduct mediation for disputes of all stripes, I can confidently say that it is a magic way to deal with conflict rather than giving in or fighting back. The magic is not in the mediator, however. It is in the process itself.
People need to come up with their own best solutions to conflict, and mediation does just that. In arbitration, the power resides in an authoritarian dynamic and rarely engenders good outcomes. When disputants are allowed to recognize their strong emotions and learn courteous and honest ways to express them, true magic can happen.