Peer mediators help quash violence

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 29, 1999

DEBBIE MUSTIAN / L’Observateur / September 28, 1999

It happens all the time. A teen-aged girl gets word that someone istalking about her behind her back. She sends word that she wants to fight. Before you know it a little incident has grown into a big one.

Some students at East St. John High School say the best way to stop aconflict like this from escalating is to resolve it before it gets out of hand.

“I want to feel safe in school,” says Heather James, 16. “I wanted to getinvolved in peer mediation to keep down violence.”For four years, social studies teacher Carolyn Batiste, has spearheaded a group called Peer Mediators at ESJHS. Peer Mediators are committed toassist their schoolmates in working through the little problems that could grow into big ones.

“I like to help people with problems get out of a mess before it starts,” says Dwan Scott, 16, one of about 18 peer mediators at ESJHS.

The other peer mediators agree, saying that many problems among high school students are the result of hearsay—two students getting into a fight because a third party has told one of them that the other has said something about him.

“We must have control over ourselves,” says Batiste. “Instead oflistening to rumors, we must listen to our hearts, our minds and our parents.”Batiste says students learn through mediation that usually the people who are spreading the stories are doing it to get others in trouble.

“Those kinds of ‘he said-she said’ incidents benefit everyone but you,” Batiste says. “Someone else wants you to have a problem; someone elsewants you to get kicked out of school.”Batiste says students are recruited in eighth grade to become peer mediators.

“I started at first because of my friends, but then I started finding out what it was about,” says Victoria Jackson, 15, “You can help innocent people. You don’t want to see them get suspended.”Students chosen for the program must participate in 15 hours of training, including two Super Saturday training sessions in April and September, before they are awarded a Peer Mediator T-shirt and are allowed to mediate student conflicts. Students are dropped from the group if theyargue.

“We look for students who have self-control and are good listeners,” she says.

Teachers must evaluate students interested in participating in the program, using such criteria as trustworthiness, respect for others, neutrality and confidentiality.

“We don’t talk about what goes on in mediation off-campus,” says Batiste.

“Things don’t go out, they stay at school.”Of course, there are some conflicts that can’t be mediated, according to Batiste—things like gang fights, sexual harassment, or problems involving large groups.

Some of those conflicts result in suspension or expulsions for students, but the peer mediators are learning how to handle some large group controversies.

Lieutenant Vernon Bailey, assigned to the school from the St. John ParishSheriff’s Office. During a recent training session, he leads studentsthrough the process of empowering a group session.

“Say we have a group that gets into an argument,” Bailey theorizes.

“We’ll take six or eight of the group into a circle; the others will observe.”Each person in the circle, he says, will have a chance to talk about the problem he or she is having. When each person has had a chance to identifythe problem, the members will decide whether or not to have a meeting.

All in the circle must agree to the meeting.

From there, students involved in the circle talk about their “life stories”, diagnosing the cause of the problem and deciding what can be done to solve it.

“What is the problem students who fight have?” Bailey asks the dozen or so peer mediators attending the meeting.

“They don’t talk about it,” someone answers.

“Instead of fighting, they need to think about other options,” says 15- year-old Miyanekia Hawthorne.

Hawthorne and three other student mediators agree to demonstrate a recent case scenario in which they were called to mediate.

The case involved a student whose cousin had told her that another girl wanted to fight her over a boy. Peer mediators were assigned to each ofthe students and were able to get the students to realize that their problem had been caused by hearsay. They then agreed to resolve theconflict and remain friends.

“Most of it (disagreements) is small stuff,” says 15-year-old Alicia Englade. “I like being able to come to an agreement.”Once the students come to terms, they sign a written agreement which is placed in their school records. If a student refuses to try mediation,that, too, is placed in the records.

When a problem arises during school hours, peer mediators are called out of class to work with the students involved. Most of the time, mediatorssay, students involved in conflicts are willing to work with their peers to resolve them.

“Some respect us, some don’t,” says Ashley Linton, senior coordinator. “Ifthey don’t, Ms. Batiste may to step in.”An adult always sits in during mediations. Batiste is one of a dozen or soEast St. John High School teachers who have been trained as ConflictResolution Coordinators.

Once an issue is mediated, says Batiste, it usually does not come up again during the same school year.

“Sometimes I realize things can’t be mediated,” she says. “Sometimes wecome back to mediation, sometimes the next step is out the door.”

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