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Teens help peers keep the peace

By Shana Slater

Special to the Express-News

If we need a reason to encourage peer mediation techniques in our schools, we need look no further than the recent tragedy in Colorado. At Columbine High, two teens apparently felt they were not an important part of their high school society and exacted revenge with bombs and bullets.

What happened there was tragic. As was what happened in Arkansas and Oregon and Kentucky and too many other states. Disenfranchised and angry students are expressing their hurt and anger with violence.

But peer mediation, where teens counsel other students in anger management and conflict resolution, could help prevent those horrifying newsreels from becoming even more familiar. Peer mediation is emerging as an alternative to fighting, suspensions, expulsions and worse. A non-profit program called Peacemakers, headed and funded by the San Antonio Bar Foundation, seeks out schools in need and offers those schools training for free, all for the sake of promoting peace.

Many San Antonio schools, including Churchill, Highlands and Edison high schools, have already enacted a Peacemakers peer mediation program, where students reach out and help other students through the pressures of high school.

"I believe many young people feel disconnected from society," says Dan Naranjo, a local attorney who is the driving force behind Peacemakers. "I truly believe that a mediation program in the school would help get students connected to their school and to society in general."

But what exactly is peer mediation?

Peer mediation is a process in which students in a school, peer mediators, help other students to resolve conflicts. When there is a dispute, either student/student or teacher/student, the mediators become a neutral third party and work with the disputants through a procedure of conflict resolution.

This process involves hearing each side tell his or her story and finding solutions to the problem. Mediators seek out feelings and paraphrase what each disputant says in order to avoid the chance of being misunderstood.

After finding a solution, the mediators then have disputants sign a contract, requiring them to follow the terms of the agreement. Mediators also keep tabs on the students to make sure the agreement is working for both sides — and that the peace is kept.

The Peacemakers make a point of recruiting students from all of the different high school cliques when creating a local chapter, says 18-year-old Jason Napolitan. At least 20 percent of all Peacemaker groups are students who run on the outskirts of traditional high school society, Napolitan says.

"We specifically look for students from all parts of high school so that we are representative of all aspects of the school," says Napolitan, a senior at a North Texas high school. "That way, we're able to reach more people. We teach a way to express anger and deal with peer pressure in a peaceful way through mediation. High school can be hard, and we help students deal with their anger or confusion in a healthy way."

There are many reasons peer mediation is so effective.

"Two primary ones are that the process meets the basic needs of every human being: to be significant in their environment and to feel that they are worthy of being loved," says Susan Armoni, executive director of the Peacemakers.

"Our program affords children the opportunity to talk out things that they are deeply concerned about in a safe, nonjudgmental place. All people — unless they are mentally ill — want to resolve conflict constructively. It has been proven that the ... only reason most children revert to violence is that they do not know that there is another way, a better way, to resolve conflict. We provide the skills and knowledge they need."

The article is copyright 1999, all rights reserved, by the author mailto: FavPceMkr@aol.com.

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Copyright 1999 Stephen R. Marsh
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