No punching allowed in conflict resolution

The Baltimore Sun

Trella Jorge stood in a circle of desks and spoke in a loud, clear voice.

"I don't like coming here," the 13-year-old seventh-grader said to her peers at Northwest Middle School one Tuesday afternoon. "It makes me feel bad. It just makes me want to leave and run away. Why do I have to come?"

JoAnn Sanner, director of Family and Community Mediation at the Carroll County Youth Service Bureau, prompted Trella's peers to assess her situation.

"She's saying she doesn't want to be here," Sanner said.

"It's like she wants to run away," Nobert Bayelle, 11, added.

Sanner agreed. Trella's seeming outburst was part of a new after-school program at Northwest, called Let's Work It Out, which strives to teach constructive ways to resolve conflict, instead of throwing a punch - literally or verbally.

The program is delivered through the Carroll County schools' Community Learning Center at Northwest. The center serves kids who struggle academically, but others can participate.

"We just sort of teach them how to sit down and figure out ways to resolve that problem," Sanner said of the program. "We don't give them suggestions, and we don't tell them what to do."

Instead, she encourages the students - and anyone she works with - to find solutions appropriate for their personal conflicts, which could include problems with a parent-mandated curfew, the kids' language or jobs.

Mediators might focus on a few issues and brainstorm the ways to resolve them, she said, helping the parties find common ground.

For several Tuesday afternoons, a group of about 10 made their way from the school library to a classroom, where the youths transform into the Armadillos, their chosen name.

After introductions, Sanner had the group stand in a circle for a game called "Big Wind Blows."

"This is a way for me to get to know you or you to get to know us," Sanner said, referring to the mediators who had come along - Mahlia Joyce, who teaches at the Gateway School, Jackie Malone of Taneytown and Tyler Kennedy, a freshman at Winters Mill High School.

"The big wind blows for anyone whose favorite food is meat," said 11-year-old Sean Dickhoff, a sixth-grader, standing in the middle of a circle.

Bodies shifted and moved as people with black shoes stepped forward, until Nobert landed in the circle.

"Big wind blows for ... black shoelaces," he said. The shifting began anew.

Later, Joyce stood in the middle. "The big wind blows for people with brown eyes," she said.

The game ended with three boys - Sean Dickhoff, Nobert and Jacob Jorge - who refused to budge from the center.

"Guys, work it out," Sanner said over their arguing.

They decided to settle their dispute with "rock, paper, scissors."

Nobert won with scissors. The other two stepped aside.

"Big Wind Blows meant that you had to listen," Sanner said, a skill they would need to resolve conflicts in a constructive manner.

Germain Bryant, the school's learning center coordinator, said he selected students who could benefit from the program or from more socialization.

In middle school, children are still in the process of discovery, he said, trying to figure out where they fit in.

Sanner aims to equip students with tools to do that.

"What are the three things you can do when you're having a conflict?" she asked the group during the same Tuesday session.

"Get a parent involved," one shouted.

"You get really mad, and you tell someone to stop and think about what you're doing," Nobert added.

Cooling off, Sanner said, paraphrasing his words.

"I get physical," Jacob said.

"That's confrontation," Sanner said, pointing to another possible response.

"You can walk out," another girl said.

"Avoidance," Sanner said.

The mediator said she tries to get the message across with activities during the one-hour sessions.

"You don't want to do a lot of talking," she said. "You want to do a lot of game-playing and things that'll make them move a little."

She's also had the students engage in some role-playing.

Sanner sees additional advantages to conducting a conflict-resolution program in a school.

As the youths head home with new vocabulary and concepts to discuss, she said, "You hope it filters into their families."

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