Center offers mediation in minor conflicts WEST COLUMBIA

Imagine for a moment yours are the neighbors from hell.

If it's not their pet dog yapping incessantly from the yard at night, it's the scream of heavy metal music by dawn's early light. You've tried prodding them to put a damper on the noise, but, hey, it's a free country, they remind you.


Too often, such spats between suburban neighbors can escalate to angry threats, tense arguments and even violence.

But if all goes according to plan, Howard County could be blessed with a sounder approach to taming through what's known as "conflict resolution."


Howard Community College agreed last week to sponsor for the next 20 months the Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center. The principle goal will be establishing a network of trained volunteer conflict mediators for every community in the county.

"What we'd ultimately like to do is train enough sharp, wise people so that you have a mediator in every community," said Mark M. Canfield, a professor of sociology at the college.

"It's much easier and quicker on all the parties if someone who is respected in the community can step in and resolve the conflict than if you have to bring everyone here to the college for a meeting."

If a particularly difficult situation arises, center staff might step in, said Mr. Canfield. Such instances might include acts of racial or religious-related derision or violence, such as was demonstrated in several county public schools several years ago.

Organizers, who ranged from a retired journalist to county police representatives, hope the center becomes a model for community colleges nationwide.

It's being patterned after conflict resolution centers in Northern Virginia and at Bowie State University.

The center on the Little Patuxent Parkway campus also will offer classes and seminars in conflict resolution, prejudice and social and racial sensitivity, as well as professional development and, of course, mediation services.

Those will be offered to the public and marketed to corporations, government and other educational institutions, said Jean Toomer, an organizer who is president of Community Building for Howard County, a non-profit human rights organization.


Fees haven't been determined yet, but will be similar to the $40 to $60 per person cost for seminars now offered through the college's continuing education department.

"It makes a lot of sense to have a center like this headquartered at a community college because they are much more tapped in to the problems facing people they serve in the community than a big university," Mr. Canfield said.

The college, while providing facilities, has no direct role in running the center. But three college staff members, Mr. Canfield among them, are being allowed to invest some of their work time into center duties.

The college is not contributing any money but center officials are attempting to raise $74,000 to cover annual operating costs.

The money would be used to pay a part-time administrator, course coordinators and other expenses. Organizers have come up with the money before June 1994 when the community college's agreement to provide administrative assistance ends.

Mr. Canfield said his interest in getting a conflict resolution center operating stems from his work as a mediator in child custody cases and watching the emerging trend in courts toward resolving disputes outside the courtroom.


Organizers also say recent hate-related incidents in some county public schools highlighted the need for a center, which would focus on heightening residents' understanding and appreciation of those from different cultures.

"Racial or hate-related incidents are certainly among the stickiest to resolve," said Mr. Canfield. The center would act in such instances to educate community leaders about appropriate responses and, if possible, bring conflicting parties together.

"The goal is showing people they have more in common than differences," said Ms. Toomer.