Seeking conflict solutions from youthful mediators School workshop teaches teens diplomacy skills


Teasing, petty thefts, shoving in the halls -- such adolescent conflicts are defused in an average of 12 minutes by student mediators at the Hannah More School for emotionally disabled children.

Last week, seven teen-agers -- some of whom had been through mediation themselves -- completed a two-day training session by acting out conflicts, practicing listening skills, and brainstorming solutions.

"Students are hungry for opportunities to serve," said Paul Kaplan, the school's director of clinical services. "They are eager, willing to help -- and they are very good at it."

Compared with the students' average of 12 minutes in mediating, he said, adults take two hours to reach a less satisfying result.

"And it gets real loud. You can relate with a kid rather than an adult, someone close to your age or your generation," said Jada, 13, who wants to be a counselor. (Last names of the students were not provided because of the nature of their problems. Many have a history of abuse or mental illness.)

The group seemed to enjoy seeing Mr. Kaplan and social worker Tammy Weiner sulk and fume their way through an incident over a borrowed Walkman that had been seized by the principal. An apology, respect for others' property, an end to retaliatory teasing -- these were the students' preferred solutions. They were less keen on involving the principal, for fear of having a new rule imposed.

As the students took their turns, problems almost seemed to solve themselves. As soon as combatants sat down with a team of two mediators, the aggrieved had a chance to complain and the wrongdoer a chance to apologize, without interruption or insults. Each had to summarize the other's viewpoint, suggest resolutions -- and sign an agreement.

But when Eugene, 15, and Larry, 13, took turns playing students, they improvised a seemingly simple spat into a convoluted tale of thefts, hitting and threats.

"This is very real, very good," Mr. Kaplan said. "They started with one conflict, and it turns into something else."

The dispute was taken before the whole group, where the best resolution they could manage was an agreement that the two youths avoid one another.

Mr. Kaplan initiated the program at the school in 1992 -- the first in Maryland in a special education setting, he said. The program has had 135 successful mediations, with a handful of failures.

The 21-acre private school in Reisterstown, once a girls' academy, has served since 1978 as a day school for about 100 students from ages 11 to 21 from Baltimore and surrounding counties.

Kelli, 16, said other students urged her to enter the program, which she endorses. "I had one [mediation] last year, and it ended up this year that we're really close now," she said, referring to a classmate with whom she had bickered.

She said she hopes they all are accepted into the program.

Jada added: "And I hope we learned how to settle our own little problems."

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