How much of a role could schools and students play in healing the conflicts of a region? A hint of the potential is revealed in the small but growing number of programs that teach mediation skills to students. SMART (School Mediators’ Alternative Resolution Team) is a program in six New York City high schools that uses student mediators to resolve disputes among their classmates (2 Lafayette St, NY, NY 10007; 212/577-7700).
Nancy Pascal is a student at Bryant High School, Queens, NY. Jane Hughes Gignoux is consultant and trainer in communications skills. Her article, "Letting Go Of The Enemy," appeared in IN CONTEXT #10.
Jane: Nancy, how long have you been in the SMART program?
Nancy: For three years, since I was a freshman.
Jane: What do you think of it?
Nancy: I think it’s great. I’ve learned a lot of things like how to control myself, you know, how to deal with problems, not only here, but at home, too. I’ve learned how to control my anger, how not to let things go too far in fighting. And I learned how to relate with my peers about what’s going on in the school. If I have a mediation case, I can speak to them about how to handle their emotions.
Jane: Do you find that some of the disputes that come up have to do with intercultural issues, people coming from different backgrounds and cultures?
Nancy: Many cases are like that recently, because of the Howard Beach incident. After that we had a lot of racial conflict between the blacks and other people in our high school. This school has a wide range of different races. You can find blacks and Hispanics, and even Hispanics break up into their own groups. And the Italians stay by themselves, the Greeks stay by themselves, so there’s like racial conflict between them. There’s always some kind of static. But recently, it hasn’t been that bad.
Jane: What sort of cases came up after the Howard Beach incident?
Nancy: Well, it was just a lot of static. You know, people were angry, and kids took it into their own hands, and trouble would start up over anything. You could just brush by someone and that was it – a fight would start. And what we were trying do with mediation was get something in front of that static to get people closer together so they could understand each other.
Jane: How have you been able to calm down that tension?
Nancy: Well, during the session we would try to get the people to relate to each other so that both parties are just teenagers. We all have something we can relate to in common. We can all speak on the same topics. So, when you really get to the bottom line, these people aren’t really angry at each other. It’s like they have to put up a front and stay in groups. But if you talk to these people separately, they’re really not that angry, and they really don’t hate each other. I have a lot of Greek friends and a lot of black friends and a lot of white friends. This school is so full of races that people can’t help but intermingle.
Jane: Can you give an example of something that you can get people agreeing on, instead of being separate about?
Nancy: We just start talking and get them to realize why they were fighting, what was the reason. Was it because they were angry? Was it because someone did something to them in front of their friends? And most people just bring it out. And then, if someone goes, "Well, look! You pushed me and my girlfriend was there. I felt embarrassed," the other guy can relate to that. He goes, "Oh, I didn’t know that was your girl, and I’m sorry about that." With every case there’s something the other person can relate to. When people get face to face and they really speak to each other and hear each others’ side of the story, they see where the misunderstanding happened, and people will go, "Oh! Oh, well, I didn’t know you were talking to me. I thought you were talking to her," or something like that. Everyone can understand each other after awhile, when they get face to face and the anger has cooled down.
Jane: How many of the cases that you’re familiar with would you say "stick"? Do some of them have to come back again for mediation?
Nancy: I don’t know of any case that has ever come back, because in the mediation program we make contracts, and the parties sign it, and they usually abide by the contract, or else they would have never signed it. Most of the time it’s like that. Now that I think of it, I do remember a case that flared up again, but then it just cooled down after a while. Most kids don’t want to get suspended, and this is the alternative to suspension.
Jane: Do you find you use your mediation skills outside of the SMART program?
Nancy: Yeah. Sometimes I forget, but I try.
Jane: And how does that work?
Nancy: You have to think. If someone’s pushing you to fight in a situation, like, if someone says something terrible to you like, "You’re stupid", you could say, "Do you really mean that? Is that how you really feel about me?" Usually if someone’s angry and you talk to them in a calm manner, they will calm down also. But if someone’s angry and you get angry, they get angrier, and it just blows up. If you can calm yourself down, if you can ask them questions, like, "Do you really mean that?" Some people will say, "Well, no, but you made me angry" or something like that.
Jane: Do you live in a mixed neighborhood?
Nancy: I live in Astoria, Queens. It’s a mixed neighborhood. And my family’s mixed.
Jane: So you’ve experienced different cultures growing up?
Nancy: A lot.
Jane: Has that been hard?
Nancy: No, it hasn’t been hard. It’s been a learning experience. I consider myself able to deal with any kind of person. I can speak to anyone, and I can understand where they’re coming from.
Jane: When there are differences in your larger family, is there anger? How are they settled?
Nancy: There’s usually a mediator.
Jane: Who is that person, usually?
Nancy: My uncle. I used to think of it as being nosy. I would say, "Let them work it out for themselves." But if there’s a dispute between a wife and a husband, and they’re separated, an older person in the family will try to get them together and talk about what happened and what they want to do about it. They’ll try something like mediating.
Jane: Would you say the program here has made a difference in the life of the school?
Nancy: Yes, it has made a difference. There are fewer suspensions. There are not as many fights, I believe. There may be disputes, but when it really comes down to fights, there aren’t many. To me, Bryant has really changed since I came here in the 9th grade.
Jane: Do you sometimes recruit new mediators out of these cases?
Nancy: Many. Many cases.
Jane: So the program is growing?
Nancy: It grows a lot.
Jane: How are mediators perceived in the school?
Nancy: Everyone has a clear view of who we are. We don’t try to act macho … we don’t have jackets, we have tee-shirts. People like us. They come down here to speak to us. There’s no resentment or anything like that, because it’s some of all of us. I mean, if the majority were white or something like that, maybe there would be…
Jane: It’s an intercultural group.
Nancy: Yes, it’s a very intercultural group, so there’s really no static between us and the different groups in the school.
Jane: Are there any other things you want to say about the program?
Nancy: I think it’s a program that everyone should have a taste of. Everyone should have a course in mediation, because it really shows you how to deal with people in life. I think students need that. They just go from class to class, argue, and stick with their group of people, and when you get out there in the world, you really need to know how to deal with conflicts. I think the most important thing, besides an education, is how to deal with people. I don’t care how smart you are, if you don’t know how to deal with people, then you’re not going to get anywhere.
For more information about other student mediation programs, contact the following (thanks to Jacquelyn Branagan):
CALM Resources, 1820 East Thomas #2, Seattle, WA 98112; 206/325-4448.
Educators for Social Responsibility, 23 Garden St, Cambridge, MA 02138; 617/492-1764.
NAME, 425 Amity St, Amherst, MA 01002; 413/545-2462.
San Francisco Community Boards School Initiatives Program, 149 Ninth St., San Francisco, CA 94103; 415/552-1250.