Mightier Than the Fist

Kids from six Knox County middle schools learn peer mediation skills

If their peer mediation training works out the way it's supposed to, 12 students from each of six Knox County middle schools will have communication skills far more evolved than the fellow students they hope to influence—and far more sophisticated than most adults in the community.

"A bunch of drama happens at school, and it leads to big fights," says Brian Daigneault, a 13-year-old who will be an 8th grader at Gresham Middle School this term. "Hopefully people will come to me before it reaches a major fight. It can be frustrating, you get all mad. I'll try to teach the way I've been taught, like the silence, trying to get calm. That's the hardest part, trying to get calm."

The fatal shooting of a 15-year-old student at Central High School last year is still very much in the thoughts of the Gresham community, since it's a Central feeder school, but not specifically linked to the school's desire for peer mediation, says Mark Jones, a teacher from Gresham. "We're looking to help solve basic disputes between kids that affect their success in the classroom. Rumors, bullying, fights—a lot of the things that have been coming into our school from the community for many years."

Statistics also show that peer mediation reduces expulsions and suspensions, according to Deanna Morris, program director for Seattle-based CRU Institute, which was contracted for the training. If it works that way in Knox County—which had 5,760 suspensions and 31 expulsions last year—it could potentially improve the long-term situation at the 13 schools countywide that are on the state's "high priority" list due to poor literacy and graduation rates, since missed school days contribute to both.

Carter, Cedar Bluff, Gresham, Halls, Powell, and Vine Middle schools are the schools that first responded to an open call from Knoxville's Community Mediation Center, which is sponsoring the training effort. The kids are volunteers, and not your typical resume builders, says Morris. "Studies have shown that results go way down when you only involve kids who have a 3.0 or better or are predominantly Caucasian—the Goody Two Shoes. We try for diversity, of race, socioeconomic level, academic achievement."

In Knox County, around 26 percent of students who were suspended last year were African American, though they make up just 14.6 percent of the student body. At Gresham, which had 132 suspensions in 2008, 42 percent were African Americans, though its student body is 16.3 percent black.

Of the 12 mediator candidates selected from each school, one or two are what Morris' co-trainer Charles Upshaw calls "fringe kids. They have good leadership skills, but right now they're taking that in a negative direction. This allows them to use those skills in a positive way."

At school, conflict mediators will work in teams of two to resolve disputes referred to them by the squabblers' friends, counselors, or teachers. The subjects themselves must also sign a contract agreeing to mediate. Says Morris: "Our overall goal is to teach, ‘Don't hit when you're mad, and don't run over and get an adult involved. Work it out directly with the person, and with words.'"

Last week, she and Upshaw outlined the basics to representative teachers, principals, and guidance counselors at a conference room in the campus Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. Then they put about 30 students a day through their paces, in an atmosphere familiar to anyone who's ever been to counseling or employee workshops. Key slogans were on flip charts: "Balance the Power," for example, and "Dig for Gold." The kids formed break-out groups of four, two to mediate, two to dispute pre-fab disagreements, with an adult moderator to coach and encourage. Both sides gave it their all.

"How does that make you feel?" a young lady solemnly asks "Rose," the fictional disputant who's been called here because she's spreading rumors about a boy at school. "Sad, angry... I thought he really cared, but he didn't!" "Rose" sobs.

"Hector," the victim of the rumors, is then encouraged to explain his side. "I'm pretty mad, you've been going around school telling everyone I don't like Jill," he says.

"I did not!" "Rose" shoots back.

"Hey," both mediators interrupt at once, "it's not your turn to talk!"

At another table, a teacher/trainer gripping cards with helpful phrases like, "I message," or "feelings," is prompting kids to dig deeper. "Here's what we get to," she says, "Was it about pencils, or was it about respect? The real issue is sometimes under the surface."

It's tough not to provide solutions, says Carter Middle School 7th grader Semaja Reed: "I keep wanting to jump in and give advice. But they're supposed to be the ones figuring out what to do."

The training cost is a non-issue for the school system; it's paid for by a $90,000 six-school-district grant from the administrative arm of the Tennessee Supreme Court, drawn from penalties paid by attorneys who don't take required classes. But the program still may brook opposition from teachers, because counseling sessions happened during instruction time. That attitude has already thwarted earlier peer mediation efforts at Gresham, says Jones. "We've had a program for three years already, and the first year it had great success. But then it moved down some, because some teachers just don't want to give up any control."

The school leapt at the chance for this training and to revitalize the program, says Jones, and he's reinforced by Gresham guidance counselor Marc Sandlin. "With two guidance counselors, there is only so much we can do," Sandlin says. "And kids are more likely to follow their friends, anyhow."

The kids see potential pitfalls in the task ahead; they also see immense possibility for success.

Preston Hardy, a rising 7th grader at Carter Middle School, thinks the peer mediation might keep kids from picking on, say, shorter kids, like himself—he's 4' 6". "I don't have much trouble personally, but people are really insensitive about height sometimes," he says. "And there are things over religion. I think the problem we'll have that's the hardest is things to do with religion."

Fellow Carter mediator Taylor Bodin-Henderson anticipates issues that involve race. "That'd be the hardest to mediate, but it's also the most likely."

The topics might be less important than the depth of feeling, adds Reed. "Something that's really hurting a person inside. It's going to be hard to deal with emotion like that."

Whatever the issues, Daigneault is ready to get started. "Kids are emotional, they're always saying, ‘Your mama this' and ‘Your mama that,' just doing that around their friends to make themselves look better," he says. "Their friends think they're cool, so they'll continue to do it until someone shows them they're not cool.

"My friend and my other friend were arguing over a girl and got into a fight and a lot of trouble. If I'd known all this, I could have really helped them."

Correction: The grant is issued by the Tennessee Supreme Court, not the state Bar Association.