It began as many confrontations between students do: with a hard stare between two passing strangers, according to Toni Holmes, a senior at an Ellicott City alternative school. One of the girls told a friend, "I don't like her." Snide remarks about clothing and appearance went back and forth, and then other girls chimed in.
Soon, unexplained yet simmering enmity exploded into a series of face-to-face confrontations among about 20 girls at the Homewood Center. Teachers got hurt preventing the arguments from becoming physical, and hallways were often deemed unsafe.
That's when Howard Community College's Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center stepped in. The group conducted two informal meetings with the girls — all of whom sat in a circle and took turns talking. Then center staff trained Homewood staff in its mediation and resolution practices.
The Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center has been dealing with conflict in the Howard community for the past 22 years, including boundary disputes between neighbors, anger-management issues of college athletes and disagreements among teacher groups.
At Homewood, not only were the problems between the girls defused; according to Homewood Center statistics on discipline, between a four-month period before the practices were implemented and the four months after, out-of-school suspensions decreased from 196 to 148, office behavior referrals decreased from 299 to 76 and absences decreased from 2,131 to 1,860.
The mediation center has helped youngsters express their emotions more effectively and is encouraging staff to engage students in making school environments safe. The center is also working with staff at Oakland Mills and Hammond high schools to help improve both schools' detention programs.
"At first, I didn't want to try [the meetings] because they were putting all the girls together," said Holmes, who was among the girls who took part in the mediation. "I didn't think that was a good idea, because I thought there would be a lot of conflict. Once we got there, it was conflict in the beginning, but then it turned out to be good.
"After the circle, everyone started to just wake up and saw that it was childish," added Holmes, who lives in Columbia. "You could see in the circle, when we were going back and forth. We just started saying, 'I don't have a reason not to like her. I'm not going to dislike her just because somebody else doesn't like her.'"
Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center director Kathryn Rockefeller said the center began as a grass-roots organization in 1990 before HCC took it over in 2001. And though many of those who end up at the center go voluntarily, it also receives referrals from law enforcement and juvenile detention services.
HCC officials say that the center offers the only associate's degree in conflict resolution in the nation. It has entered into an agreement with Salisbury University, which also has a Center for Conflict Resolution, that allows HCC graduates to attend there.
The HCC center has 150 nonstudent volunteers, all of whom have undergone at least 40 hours of mediation training at the college.
A Homewood psychologist who volunteers at the center summoned the mediators to the school of 150 students, some of whom struggle in traditional learning environments.
Rockefeller said the center uses methods derived from the Bethlehem, Pa.-based International Institute for Restorative Practices, which encourages authority figures — teachers, supervisors and law enforcement — to involve their communities in creating solutions to problems rather than resorting to punitive measures.
"Restorative work is about if an incident has happened, it's helping people, especially juveniles, to recognize that the harm they caused has an effect on people," said Rockefeller. She added that the method includes asking questions such as "Who was harmed by your actions?"
"That question is the key," said Rockefeller. "Our criminal justice system, we slap on a suspension and say, 'You did X and you get punishment Y.' We don't think about who was hurt by X. And then this person doesn't have to face the human consequences of what he or she did and is allowed to remain anonymous, which is not effective."
Though youths often answer that question as "no one" or "me," according to Rockefeller, "Often the class is affected. Their parents are affected."
During the circles at Homewood, some students ultimately acknowledged that they had hurt parents and teachers. Their parents missed work time after repeatedly visiting the school to help deal with the matters, and some teachers questioned whether they had chosen the right career path in working with such youths, Rockefeller said. Some of the girls, she said, apologized to teachers.
Still, getting the girls to come to terms with their actions wasn't easy at first. In fact, they said, a staff person had to sit between each of them in the circle. Initially the girls said nothing, and their first attempt at dialogue erupted into a confrontation that resulted in two girls being removed from the circle.
"Almost everyone at this school is a very strong-willed person," said Homewood student Miya Miro of Ellicott City. "They don't like to be disrespected. Whenever someone is saying, 'I don't like her,' or 'Look at what she's wearing,' or 'She's fat and ugly,' no one ever wants to hear that, and that's why you get so mad."
Eventually, the students acknowledged that their animosity had no root cause and merely amounted to what they called "girl drama."
Rockefeller sought to help the girls understand that they had more in common than differences, and they began to see the pettiness in the squabbles.
"At first I didn't want to resolve the situation," Holmes said, "but I was tired of going back and forth getting into trouble. It really wasn't worth it, at the end of the day."
And the different approach to resolving conflict has helped the staff.
"What was important to me after that big circle was when they felt that things had gone awry again, they were contacting the assistant principal and saying, 'We need to circle up again,' " said Homewood Center Principal Tina Maddox. "They were more likely wanting to resolve it in a positive manner, and they were reaching out to us. That was a sign that … it was producing problem-solving skills, conflict resolution that our students had not normally experienced."