The dark blue sweaters lay crumpled on the floor. Standing over them, back straight and face twisted in anger, Michael Patterson, 11, demanded to know why Cigi Williams, 10, threw them there.
"Because I wanted to," Cigi snapped belligerently.
That's when Quante Toney and Mark Turner, both 10 years old, stepped in.
In the parlance of the schoolyard, they are "conflict busters."
At George Street Elementary School, youngsters are being trained to defuse arguments that flare up and can lead to hurt feelings and worse. About 25 of them graduated after finishing training yesterday at George Street, including the four who demonstrated their newly polished skills for fellow students in this staged presentation at the ceremony.
Teaching students to resolve conflicts peacefully in a world in which violence is not just on television, but sometimes on the very streets and playgrounds where children gather, is part of a growing trend. The National Association for Mediation in Education, an Amherst, Mass-based national clearinghouse for peer mediation for elementary school children, was founded in the early 1980s and has its roots in the '60s peace movement, said Annette Townley, the executive director of the organization.
"Teaching young people the skills they need to handle conflicts in a non-violent way is a movement that is growing," Mrs. Townley said. "In the process, people develop higher self-esteem."
In the Baltimore area, the coordinators at Sheppard Pratt trained children in two schools last year and are in four schools this year.
"We have a waiting list of 10 more," said Careen Mayer, the director of Sheppard Pratt's Community Educational Programs. The training is led by coordinators from the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Health System's National Center for Human Development. At George Street, the program was funded by a grant from Baltimore Gas and Electric and the Baltimore school system's professional development center.
Teaching children the skills to handle conflicts in a non-violent manner is the goal at George Street school, which sits in the shadows ofthe Murphy Homes public housing complex. It is in an economically depressed neighborhood of small rowhouses and towering high rises. Yet the students' faces still reflect hope and trust in the world. It is their teachers' and parents' hope that early intervention can keep these children from choosing violence as a way of settling conflicts.
"We really wanted something that would teach kids to settle disputes in a non-violent way," said Barbara A. Hill, principal of the school. "Most of our conflicts here are really silly little fights which very often can be mediated."
The staged argument at "conflict buster" graduation at George Street Elementary School was a typical situation: Cigi and Michael are locker partners. He keeps it sloppy. She prefers it clean. It ended peaceably only after the two antagonists talked about how they felt, listened to one another and worked out a solution.
"Don't interrupt," Mark and Quante had to keep repeating before a solution was found. "How does this make you feel?" they asked the arguing pair.
"Angry," said Cigi.
"Mad," replied Michael.
"What do you want?" the mediators pressed.
"I want him to keep the locker clean," Cigi told the mediators. "Do you agree to that?" the "conflict busters" asked. Taking but a second to think it over, Michael relented.
"I'll clean it once a week," he said. "And I want an apology."
"Congratulations on a successful mediation, apologize and shake hands," said Quante.
No one is saying that each situation will go as smoothly as the demonstration or that all students will respect their peers, but the approach is a positive reaction to a negative situation, said adults who worked with the children. The youngsters say they came away from the training experience a lot wiser.
"I learned you can solve problems in a different way other than by fighting," said Quante.
"It's better to talk it out," agreed Michael. He predicted, however, that although most of his peers would probably listen to the mediators, occasionally someone won't.
"Some will want to fight and say, 'get outta my face,' " the husky fifth grader said. The students are trained to give the name of any belligerent student to the principal and also never to get involved in any fights.
"We do try to solve the problem, though, before it goes to the principal," Michael said.
The "conflict busters" were chosen by their peers or teachers. They were given six weeks of intensive training in addition to 10 months of ongoing monitoring.
"The students tend to respect them," said Lucy Miller, principal at Northwood, a school that trained conflict busters last year and is training more this year. "It does help resolve disagreements."
To a George Street Elementary School parent, the training has had additional benefits. "I've seen a lot of changes," said Robin Harris, whose 9-year-old son Marcas became a peer mediator.
"He will start arguing with his little sister then stop and say, 'let's talk it over,' " Mrs. Harris said. "And before this, he would say he didn't know what he wanted to be. Now he wants to be a lawyer."