For the past two years, Ed Friesema has played the role of peacemaker at Atholton High School.
He has broken up fights between students, listened to their concerns and helped resolve conflicts. Sometimes, they interrupt him in the middle of class or stop him in the hallway.
Ed is not a school administrator or teacher. He is a student, one of a growing number of peer mediators in the Howard County high schools.
"You let them talk," said Ed, an affable 17-year-old. "If they agree on anything, that's a start. My job isn't to make them best friends, but to keep them from being suspended."
At Atholton, the program has helped reduce the number of suspensions from 170 to 145, said Charlotte Saji, the schools' mediation coordinator.
Peer mediation, which started at Atholton three years ago, was expanded last summer to all county high schools to improve relations among students and reduce racial incidents, which had been increasing.
In July, nearly 100 students from all eight county high schools attend
ed a three-day workshop where they learned mediation skills such as bias awareness, communicating, reasoning, listening and remaining neutral.
Since then, the number of peer mediators has grown. At Howard High, for example, six more students will soon join the 10 already mediating conflicts.
At Howard High this year, peer mediators have already prevented two suspensions, said Assistant Principal Don White.
At Atholton, students helped an entire class and teacher resolve a misunderstanding in which students felt they weren't being allowed to express their opinions.
Its advocates say the program works because it allows teens to talk about their disagreements without fear of reprisal.
"It's like no-fault insurance," Ms. Saji said. "It's neutral ground."
Students also feel more comfortable talking to someone their own age, mediators said.
"There's a certain level of security among your peers," said Alissa Wallace, an Atholton junior.
Mediators said the toughest part of the job is listening without offering advice or making snap judgments.
"You're there to let them make their own decisions," said Parrish McCleary, an Atholton senior in her third year as a mediator.
Mediators use a variety of techniques to maintain an impartial attitude.
"You have to focus on the problem," said Julie Lovell, a Howard senior.
Chris Dodson, 15, tries to disregard his relationship with either side during a mediation.
"You have to close out all personal experiences," said the Howard High sophomore.
Others try neutral vocabulary.
"We use words that don't have any judgments to them," Alissa said.
Mediators said rumors are the most common cause of fights among teens but that they occasionally deal with racial tension, suicide and alcoholism.
Alissa recalled how she created a payment plan for two girls who were arguing over a missing ring.
"That's when your training really comes in," she said.
The mediators usually mirror their disputants' gender and race. If a boy and girl are fighting, for example, a male and female mediator are on hand.
"People tend to open up more when they feel represented," said Sheron Long, a 16-year-old Howard High student.
The program has become so popular at Howard that students recognize the peer mediators on sight.
"They know who you are," Sheron said.
"The kids doing the mediating feel good," said Howard High Principal Eugene Streagle. "The kids being mediated say, 'That's really neat.' "