Peacekeeper Josh Roth patrols Guilford Elementary School's playground every week armed with a walkie-talkie and smooth talk to keep law and order. He's been trained as a peer mediator to help fellow students resolve disputes without violence.
Josh, a 10-year-old fifth-grader, is part of Howard County's first group of elementary-school children who have learned to spot trouble among fellow classmates and defuse it before tempers flare and fistfights begin. One recent recess period, he cleared up ill will among six children. One boy had accidentally tripped and pushed another to the ground.
Peer mediation programs such as the one in Howard have emerged amid widespread concerns that children are growing up with too much violence in schools, the streets, TV programs and movies. Peer mediation programs are intended to help students learn that there are ways to resolve disputes other than hitting and yelling.
"Some of the models our children have from the media certainly give you the impression that it's not necessary to resolve it," said Gwendolyn Clark, Harford County schools' supervisor of guidance. "You can just pop someone and go on."
Educators say peer mediation programs have made a difference. Some see a decrease in the number of fights, suspensions and students being sent to the office. Others say there's been an increase in student requests for mediation services, proof that the young people are wanting and learning to resolve their disputes peacefully.
"For children, it empowers them to have control over what happens to them," said Doris Shaw, principal at Robert Poole Middle School in Baltimore. "Students are helping other students, and for the mediators, it gives them self-esteem. It really does."
She adds: "This is what we want to do over the 21st century. We've got to empower students to have greater control over their learning. This is one way of doing that."
All Maryland districts have a peer mediation program in at least one school, due in part to a $100,000 grant the state Department of Education doled out several years ago to implement peer mediation and conflict resolution programs.
In the Baltimore metropolitan area, Howard and Baltimore counties and Baltimore city are the only school districts that have peer mediation programs at all grade levels. Other school systems have programs at varying levels, with the intention of having them in all of their schools in the next decade.
Baltimore has peer mediation programs in about 60 of its 183 schools. The city recently won a federal grant to open a conflict resolution center where school administrators and teachers can consult and get training on starting peacemaking programs at their schools. The center is expected to open in spring to train students and teachers on mediation skills they can use next school year.
Supporters of peer mediation programs believe training students an early age to resolve their disputes peacefully teaches them a lifelong skill.
"It helps kids respond to and resolve problems in nonviolent ways, and it uses kids to do that," said Donald McBrien, the Howard County school system's pupil services director. "Two people can have a problem, and both people can come out winners."
Peer mediation programs work this way: Students involved in a quarrel must agree to go to mediation to solve their problem. They meet with two fellow students who have been trained to listen and not take sides.
Peer mediators' task is to allow both parties to speak without interruption and name-calling to get to the root of the problem. Then they help broker an agreement between the two sides to resolve the dispute.
Mediators require the students to formalize the agreement in a contract that spells out each party's obligations. Both sides must abide by its terms, or else they will be referred to guidance counselors or administrators.
The whole process, which in some schools replaces students being sent to the office or suspended, takes place confidentially and usually without adults or teachers present.
Roger Plunkett, principal at Columbia's Atholton High School, said peer mediation programs are so successful because they're "peer pressure in a very positive way."
"Students are so influenced by their peers that they listen to them so readily. Their peers are holding them accountable," he said.
At Robert Poole Middle School in Baltimore, students are hand-picked to serve as mediators who are on call throughout the school day. Robert Poole was known for racial tensions and fights among students, but now has a model peer mediation program that virtually has eliminated all physical confrontations and has increased attendance, Ms. Shaw, the principal, said. She said attendance was about 85 percent this year -- up from 82 percent last year and 76 percent in 1990.
Peer mediator Nikia Washington, an eighth-grader, has noticed that students are more friendly toward one another. She's also seen a change in herself -- she says she gets along well with fellow classmates now.
"If all students in the world have [peer mediation skills], maybe there wouldn't be so much killing going on because they would be able to solve their problems," she said.
Angela Callahan, Robert Poole's conflict resolution coordinator, said students are applying their mediation knowledge outside of school as well.
"Children are using these skills in the street," she said. "They are learning how to talk to people differently. It's a pretty natural point of view to put control of the problem solvers in the hands of the people who have the problems. Traditionally, we don't think that young folks can solve their own problems. But they usually find good solutions and rarely come back."
At Guilford Elementary in Columbia, about 30 fifth-graders went through training during summer to learn mediation techniques that they use on first- to fourth-graders. They rotate weekly to patrol the playgrounds, keeping a watchful eye on students playing basketball, skipping rope and chasing one another.
"It gives us a chance to help kids," said Sabrina Batten, a 10-year-old fifth-grader who lives in Columbia. "Since we've been here, they've been kind of cool. They get along."
In other school districts:
* All of Anne Arundel's 12 high schools have or are beginning peer mediation programs. "I think it's a very effective way of dealing with some possibly explosive issues," said Frances Piacente, a guidance counselor at North County High School, which is in its second year of a mediation program.
But she acknowledges that peer mediation does not help all students or resolve all conflicts. "We have some repeat offenders who don't understand their motive of operation, and we see them again and again," she said.
* In Baltimore County, all 26 high schools, virtually all 24 middle schools and half of the county's 98 elementary schools have a peer mediation program. Charles Herndon, county school spokesman, said training will be provided in the summer so that all schools will have the program by early next school year.
* Carroll County has peer mediation programs in all five high schools and in two middle schools. At an informal program at William Winchester Elementary School, students mediate with teacher supervision.
* Harford County is just launching peer mediation programs this year at Aberdeen Middle and High schools. Harford has a five-year plan to implement peer mediation as well as conflict resolution training for students in all schools.
"We realized that a number of young people who end up in conflicts frequently really have not had some understanding or training in what is required to resolve a problem -- creatively, productively and positively," said Gwendolyn Clark, guidance supervisor for Harford schools. "We thought that by helping them learn this program, we would less likely have as many conflicts."
Colleges and universities that train teachers also are taking notice of the importance of conflict resolution and peer mediation programs. Goucher College, for the first time, is offering a 13-credit specialization on conflict resolution in its graduate education program. Goucher also is working with the Sheppard Pratt Health System through a three-year federal grant to train Baltimore County teachers at about two dozen schools to implement such programs at their schools.
Careen Mayer, director of Sheppard Pratt's community educational program division, advocates teaching conflict resolution skills to all teachers as well as all students.
"Resolution is the fourth 'R,' " she said. "It's as basic as reading and writing and mathematics, and it needs to be in all schools kindergarten to 12th grade. And it needs to be infused in all the curriculum. You need it all through your life for conflicts you have with your family and your parents . . . and in your workplace."