Back to School - Part 3 - Peer Mediation in Schools

Back to School - Part 3 - Peer Mediation in Schools

Back in 1989, Frank Albrecht taught phys ed and health at J. P. McCaskey High School in Lancaster, PA. He’d been at McCaskey for four years, and enjoyed teaching students about healthy living and physical fitness.

Then, one afternoon after school, five of his students had a fight. One of them was stabbed, nearly fatally, in the heart.

The reason for the fight? One student had spilled soup on another student’s varsity jacket.

“That incident woke up something in me,” Albrecht told me when I visited him at McCaskey last week. “Five boys’ lives were changed forever, because they responded to a conflict with violence instead of working it out peacefully.”

With the incident still painfully raw in everyone’s minds, Albrecht went to the school administration with a proposal. He wanted to start a mediation program in the school. Albrecht had been trained in mediation a few years earlier, and had been doing mediations in the community. He had personally witnessed how powerful and effective it was to help people work out conflicts in peaceful ways. McCaskey administrators approved the idea, and Albrecht got to work.

“We started the program from scratch in 1989, and built it up little by little,” he says. At the time, there were some other school mediation programs around the country, but he couldn’t find any other such programs locally or even within Pennsylvania.

Albrecht trained a group of McCaskey students in peaceful conflict resolution skills and taught them how to conduct mediations. He explains that, early on, the hardest part was convincing teachers to allow a student who was involved in a conflict to leave the classroom to participate in a mediation. But, he adds, teachers soon realized that a student who was having a conflict with someone might be distracted in class anyway, until that conflict was resolved.

By 1993, only four years after starting the program, Albrecht had a homeroom of 48 trained student mediators. Those student mediators conducted an average of 350 mediations each year, helping their fellow students to work out conflicts peacefully. Those mediations drastically reduced the number of disciplinary issues that had to be sent to the principal’s office. Albrecht conducted additional mediations when there were conflicts involving school teachers, staff, administrators or parents.

After getting the program up and running, Albrecht left McCaskey in 1993 and spent 12 years working elsewhere, including two multi-year stints working in South America, helping schools there to start up school mediation programs. McCaskey’s mediation program continued under the leadership of some committed teachers and administrators. But after a number of years, there was no one at the school with a designated role to run the program. “It faded a bit during those years,” Albrecht observes.

In 2005, Albrecht had the opportunity to return to McCaskey, and he jumped at the chance. He now has the title of Facilitator of Student Support Services.

“I see my role here as bringing harmony to the campus,” he says.

When I met with him, he had just wrapped up a three-day, 18-hour training with his current team of 32 student mediators. McCaskey’s student mediators conduct, on average, over 500 mediations between their peers every year. Two student mediators are “on duty” in each of the two high school buildings in the schools’ mediation centers during every class period, every school day.

During the school year, Albrecht meets with the student mediators every week, to continually refresh their skills, talk about mediation cases and effective strategies for handling especially difficult conflicts, and to talk about ways to continually encourage their fellow students to make use of peaceful conflict resolution skills and their mediation services. “I ask them about the conflicts in their own lives, too,” Albrecht says, “to be sure they are walking the talk of peaceful relationships.”

In addition to offering mediations, these students also do “peer listening sessions” for fellow students who are struggling with other issues, whether at school, home or elsewhere. “As peer listeners, they aren’t counselors or problem solvers,” Albrecht explains. “The peer listener just listens to the student who wants to talk about whatever challenge they’re facing, they ask questions, and they provide a safe and encouraging space for the student to figure out for themselves what they want to do. It’s incredibly powerful and empowering.”

He adds, “We have some students who are dealing with painful, incredibly difficult issues in their lives. Unbelievable issues. When they come to school, they bring all of that with them. And as adults, working with them, teaching them, I think our biggest job is that we have to keep hope alive for them. Teaching them peaceful ways to work through conflict is just one way to do that. Listening, really listening to them is another.”

I asked him about his vision for the future of peer mediation and peaceful conflict resolution in the schools. “I would really like to see a peace program in every school,” he says. “Each school would have someone designated with that responsibility. We’d have mediation programs in every school and an avenue for people to be trained in listening skills and anger management and multiple opportunities for people to get together and talk when there’s an issue . . .”

He stops and looks out his office window for a long moment before continuing.

“I think we need to just keep working on multiple fronts to infuse our youth with skills and attitudes that create harmony. Creating harmony . . . and keeping hope alive for every student. That’s what we should be all about.”

RELATED ARTICLES:

Schools and Zero Tolerance (from melaniegsnyder.com)

Chicago Public Schools Move Away From Zero Tolerance and Suspensions (from Chicago Tribune)

Peer Mediation: Recommended Strategy for Bullying Prevention (from National Crime Prevention Council)

Restorative Justice in Schools (from melaniegsnyder.com)

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: city life lancaster pa restorative justice peace

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