Sam Mondonedo, a junior at Glenelg High School, knows that teenagers can be bullies and that name-calling and taunts at school can escalate into bigger problems.
As one of 19 peer mediators at the western Howard County school, Sam has helped several classmates resolve conflicts and avoid serious confrontations, which can lead to suspension or worse.
"If the [school] administration suspends them, they never get a chance to work out the problems they were having," said Sam, 16. "If they get to talk face to face, it's a better way of preventing problems in the future."
School administrators announced last month the formation of an anti-bullying task force to find systemic approaches to discourage put-downs and harassment among students. As the task force begins its work this summer, peer mediators say their program is an effective model because it empowers teenagers to take charge.
"It works because you're dealing with your own peers," said Anum Malik, 18, a senior and peer mediator at Centennial High School in Ellicott City. "We know what's going on."
Bullying has gained attention in recent years with incidents of school shootings and cyber-harassment - where students use instant messaging and blogs to spread rumors or make offensive postings.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed into law last week an anti-bullying bill that requires local school systems to report incidents of harassment and intimation against students.
"We know if kids don't feel safe at school, they'll have a harder time learning," said Lisa Boarman, Howard school system's coordinator of school counseling, who organizes training sessions for guidance counselors on bullying issues.
In addition to other anti-bullying programs, peer mediation has existed in Howard County schools for at least 15 years, said Bruce Smith, a social studies teacher at Centennial High School and one of two program trainers.
The program is active in 10 of the county's 11 high schools, as well as in a number of middle schools.
"We think it's a very good program - one that has a good track record," Smith said. "So, we're really glad to see that there is a renewed interest in making it much more visible in the high schools again."
Student mediators are trained for three days during the summer to facilitate discussions between those with disputes and to guide them "to come up with their own solutions," Malik said.
"You can't take sides," said Michael Teeters, 17, a junior at Centennial High School. "We have to play neutral and let both sides tell their stories."
At the high school level, no adult is allowed in mediation sessions, and discussions are confidential.
"It's a chance to talk about problems in a peaceful setting without feeling like you're getting in trouble," said Emma Bullock, 17, a senior and peer mediator at Glenelg High School. "It's nice to see that our peers could work out their problems without having to be suspended or having Saturday school."
Guidance counselors and peer mediators say most cases involve "he-said, she-said" issues, rumors and gossip.
"In high school, there is a lot of name-calling that takes place," Smith said. "Students unfortunately will pick on each other, and they'll find something about another student that's different."
This year, Sam helped to mediate three cases dealing with name-calling and bullying.
Some students "have short fuses, so they agreed to either not confront each other or not talk to each other, and if it does happen, keep calm and think about the consequences," Sam said.
This summer, Sam said, he hopes to train other students to become peer mediators.
"I like that I could help people that I know if they have a problem," he said. "I don't like to see people bullied around. It's not something that should be happening in the school."