In high school, fights between students almost always start over something small -- bumping someone in a crowded hallway, stealing a hat, arguing over the attentions of a boy or girl.
Yesterday, 60 Anne Arundel County high school students began their careers as peacekeepers trained to head off such fights. The county's inaugural group of "peer mediators" received their training yesterday at the school system's Carver Staff Development Center in Crofton.
"Kids talk more readily to other kids, and kids understand the lingo," said Dennis Woroniecki, who oversees the peer mediation program at Laurel High School in Prince George's County.
Dr. Woroniecki and a team of eight students from Laurel High conducted the workshop to show Anne Arundel students how to intervene in disputes. Last year, the Laurel High mediators intervened in 417 disputes, and all but three were successfully resolved without the help of school administrators.
"Mediation is a very popular alternative to suspension," said Lisa Hall, a 17-year-old Laurel High Senior who has served as mediator in more disputes than any other member of the team.
"Mostly it's 'He said, she said' arguments or rumors," added Michael Adams, another 17-year-old senior. "You know, 'I heard you called me a tomato.' Once I mediated a dispute where somebody broke somebody's sandal by stepping on the back of it."
Jealousy is another frequent cause of disputes between teens, Michael said. And the younger they are, the more hot-tempered.
"Usually it's the ninth-graders, and you look at them like 'Why are you here?' But you can't ever let them know you think it's petty," said Shirley Prempeh. "By the 11th or 12th grade they're usually more mature."
The mediation strategy calls for having a neutral student get both sides together to clearly state the problem and agree on ways to resolve it. Students who participate in the mediation must sign a contract agreeing on how to resolve the situation.
The program is being placed in 11 of the county's 12 high schools. Only Chesapeake High is exempt this year, since students already are coping with changes created by the switch to a four-class-period day.
Students at Arundel High School said they were eager to try out the new techniques.
"We've had a lot of fights at our school this year, sometimes a couple a week," said Chris Moore, a 16-year-old Arundel junior. "Most people don't really want to fight, but they feel like they have to show off. This way, there won't be an audience."
Bill Clyburn, a 15-year-old sophomore at Arundel, said the arguments are usually petty to begin with, and are compounded because the students "jump to conclusions and don't even know what the problem is."
"The conflicts are there, now it's just a matter of getting the word out that we're here to help," said Hollie Fraley, a 17-year-old senior at Arundel.