Finding their own solutions

Peer mediation allows students to solve their problems

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High school senior Greg Williams had never heard of peer mediation a year ago, when he was nominated by a teacher to participate in the program.

What Williams now knows about the program is something he and other mediators want to share with their peers.

"Kids can feel safe talking to us," Williams said. "We're students, too, and we've dealt with the same conflicts they have."

Steamboat Springs High School's peer mediation program began three years ago under the leadership of former counselor Lynette Lochausen. In 1999, Lochausen secured a grant to fund training for student mediators, who she envisioned as leaders of a program that could increase respect among students and improve the school's culture.

Several years later, peer mediation continues to grow, but referrals to the program remain fairly low, school counselor and program coordinator Valerie McCarthy said.

McCarthy and the school's 12 trained student mediators want to see students use the program more often to resolve the many conflicts that arise among teenagers.

"I don't think it's used enough," said David May, a senior in his second year as a mediator. "There's a lot of times (that situations) could be referred to us but aren't."

Six referrals have come to the program since the school year started in August, McCarthy said. Referrals can be anonymously dropped in a box in the school's library, or students, faculty members or administrators can bring issues needing mediation directly to McCarthy, who then immediately secures two mediators to get conflicts resolved as soon as possible.

Just about any problem between two students, or even a student and a staff member, can be brought to the mediation program, where confidentiality is assured unless a threat of physical violence is made against a particular individual.

The mediators, who are juniors and seniors at the school, underwent an all-day training earlier this fall to learn how to handle myriad issues using a standard format.

The mediation process typically begins with two mediators, and the students who have requested or been told to attend mediation. A school administrator can make students attend mediation if a fight between the two is reported.

The conflict resolution process is explained to the quarreling students by the mediators, and each is asked to allow the other to share his or her side of the story uninterrupted. Each mediator represents one of the students, but remains neutral.

As the mediators listen to the students discuss the problem, they summarize what has happened and how each person is feeling about the situation. They ask each student what he or she wants to occur to resolve the situation, and use a brainstorming session to help elicit ideas for solving the dispute.

"Once students are clear on how they're feeling and what they need, it's fairly easy to find a solution," McCarthy said.

The mediators evaluate every suggested option with the students to try to select one each student thinks will be effective.

The final step in the process is the creation of an agreement, which can take the form of a written, signed contract between each party. If no agreement can be reached, the two sides are asked to agree to disagree until the situation can be reassessed.

The fairly straightforward procedure works, the mediators say. For one, students often feel more comfortable talking to their peers about a situation than taking it to teachers or administrators.

"I think a lot of kids get the idea that it's not going to work," mediator Claire Schumacher said. "But it does work; we've seen it work."

This is Danielle Tredway's first year as a mediator, and she already has experienced the success the program can offer.

"We solved a conflict, the students signed a contract, and now I see them around together," Tredway said. "They were thankful."

Confidentiality and the neutrality of each mediator are the biggest keys to the process, McCarthy said. Just as important is that the kids, not faculty members, are the ones coming up with solutions to their problems.

"Since it's coming from them, there's more buy-in," said McCarthy, in her second year of running the program.

And while many kids -- as is human nature -- tend to think it's easier to ignore problems than work to solve them, the peer mediation program attempts to let students know they have options, McCarthy said.

Still, three years after the program started, McCarthy and the mediators say the program is underused. Part of the problem, they say, is that many kids don't know peer mediation exists.

"It's an ongoing struggle," McCarthy said of making students aware of the program.

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