by Linda Stamato

The recent outbreaks of violent conflict at Morristown High School raise a number of concerns and issues for the school community. Not the least among them is finding ways to deal effectively with the differences that lead to destructive behavior. A major barrier can often be the very limited set of responses we have to conflict in this society.

As we know, contentiousness pervades the culture, and, often, neighborhoods and schools can become hostile arenas in which individuals and groups contest with and intimidate others and polarize their communities.

While conflict is natural, acceptable and probably essential to progress, a civil society must provide constructive avenues for its expression and management. What is required is an approach that builds social cohesion as it deals with differences and tries to solve problems.

Schools need to have educational programs that expose students to negotiation and conflict-resolution processes and that teach them problem-solving skills; they need to reduce reliance on dispute-handling processes that are formal and adversarial and place more emphasis on positive and creative ways to handle conflict. They need to install programs that value these approaches whether or not they have experienced outbreaks of violence.

In most cases, mediation is the preferred path. Mediation, the non-adversarial management (and resolution) of disputes by parties with the assistance of a neutral helper, provides a context to keep conflict from becoming destructive. Across the nation, schools — more than 8,000 at last reckoning — have created programs that train students to mediate disputes among their peers; some train the entire school staff and administration and, in some cases, parents are trained as well.

In some schools, conflict management is integrated into regular, ongoing classroom subjects, such as history antisocial studies. There are variations among programs, but one common element underscores their success: they are designed and developed by those who will use them.

School mediation programs have been around long enough to have allowed for some first-rate research from which I draw a few observations.

Schools operating in New York City and Chicago, for example, and in New Mexico and Wisconsin, saw suspension rates for fighting drop dramatically, often by more than 50 percent; students who went through mediation frequently became mediators themselves later; follow-up interviews indicated that more than 90 percent of mediated agreements remained intact, and the vast majority of disputants found mediation satisfying and useful.

Direct benefits are fairly transparent: peer mediation almost always produces k workable and stable (but often simple) agreement. Indirect benefits include the following: increased school involvement, positive interaction among diverse ethnic/racial groups, improved cognitive skills, improved academic performance and what could be called a more positive sense of self.

And, participants in school mediation programs were also likely to increase their skills in listening, problem-solving, oral language expression, critical thinking and empathy. School “climate,” too, showed significant improvement.

Research also finds that before, training, students often leave conflicts unresolved, but after training, students resolve conflicts through discussion and negotiation; students’ attitudes toward conflict and the school climate tend to be more positive, discipline problems and suspensions tend to decrease, and school personnel and parents tend to become more positive toward the programs.

One critical finding should certainly command attention in our community: that there are many conflicts among young people and that they occur frequently in schools. That is no surprise. But what is striking is that untrained students by and large use conflict-resolution strategies that create destructive outcomes. Where there are conflict-resolution and peer-mediation programs, on the other hand, and students are taught integrative negotiation and mediation procedures, students tend to use these conflict strategies, and constructive outcomes tend to result.

Clearly, mediation has a good deal of promise. It offers a model for students to develop the capacity for problem solving, for understanding and dealing with differences, for fostering mutual respect and cooperation; and for developing the use of fairness rather than power as a basis for resolving disputes.

This kind of service involvement in the life of the school not only serves to benefit the individual and that community directly, but students are likely to stay engaged, as citizens, in their communities once they have graduated and, thus, contribute to the civic health of society.