commentary (2006-22)

Kids Can Resolve Conflicts

But schools must be committed to the solution

Kids Can Resolve Conflicts

by Barry Henderson

Anyone who came up through the public schools and never had a run-in with another student or students that resulted in a trip to the principal’s office and some after-school detention or worse can count him- or herself lucky.

In my own case, grade-school confrontations ended with a good, and effective, talking-to by a teacher. I got through junior high unscathed, and my experience in high schools, one with 4,000 students and another with fewer than 400, concluded with me being barred from the lunchroom for the last half of my senior year. That was not much of a punishment, considering the quality of the lunchroom’s provisions, but it made a point. What it didn’t do was dissolve the bone of contention, which is still intact in my memory.

Today, such confrontations that produce name-calling, a physical scrap, a weapons violation or petty vandalism may be met by a trip to juvenile court, not a pleasant occurrence, but one that can protect school officials from the wrath of parents and shield the school from liability. Whether such actions get to the root of or resolve the problems that bring the kids’ situations to an unhealthy head is an open question.

There have been local incidents of locker-room brawls, guns brought to school “for protection,” and at least one reported instance of open anti-Semitism and other racial and ethnic slurring. The latter, visited on the children of radio personality and News Sentinel columnist Leslie Snow, took place in Farragut schools, populated largely by the offspring of relatively affluent and educated families, earlier this year. Snow reported it to the schools superintendent, the county mayor, school board members and the Farragut school principal, and got some satisfaction, in that the school board is considering revising its anti-harassment and anti-violence policy.

Snow may be called to speak to the school board at its June 7 meeting, along with Adrienne Dessel, a licensed clinical social worker who does consulting work on dialogue and diversity issues, and Jackie Kittrell, director of Knoxville’s Community Mediation Center, and perhaps others, including parents affected by in-school confrontations who are interested enough to ask that their views be heard.

The board will meet in the City County Building’s Large Assembly Room, a good venue for open discussion, that Wednesday at 5 p.m. Let’s hope the discussion lends positive guidance to the board’s policy revisions, which may be voted upon at that time.

Of particular interest to me, and I hope, the school board, is the possible expansion of a program that has existed for the past six or seven years in about 15 of the county’s schools, most of them middle schools. It is a program of conflict resolution that involves peer mediation, with students trained to mediate disputes and confrontations, with assistance from adults trained to perform that function. Some of the adult facilitators are teachers ; some are administrators, guidance counselors or social workers.

The program has had mixed results, but where it has been taken seriously, it has been a highly effective means of bringing student problems out in the open and working them out amicably.

Jackie Kittrell, whose mediation center designed the program, modeling it after others in school districts around the nation, says it should be the answer to such problem areas as bullying, racial, ethnic or religious prejudices, or gratuitous threats of violence. A schoolwide commitment to its practices is needed, and Kittrell believes it could be very effectively extended systemwide, including the elementary schools. She says research has shown that age 7 is the optimum time for kids to learn conflict resolution principles.

“Kids need to know that conflict is a part of life and learn how to handle it and manage it,” she says, and I couldn’t agree more. Kittrell also says that the organization, training, development of an implementation plan and carrying it out is not an expensive proposition, extended systemwide.

Even if it were costly, it would seem to me worthwhile if it reduced the tensions that build into violent confrontations in the schools and tended to moderate the ugly manifestations of prejudices.

There may always be bullying personalities among schoolkids, but if the kids take part in defending the bullied victims and in influencing the bullies to control their behavior, the problem would necessarily be lessened in the school setting and beyond.

The whole idea of conflict resolution should sit well with the school board and administration, and employing the students themselves to mediate conflicts among their peers is appealing not only because peers pay better attention to peers than to authority figures, but because the process produces an aura of civility all around it.

If it had been a part of my school experience, I’m betting I would have enjoyed the conviviality, if not the food, in my high school lunchroom, right up to graduation.