Familiar voices help resolve conflict between students

Published April 25, 2007

Donnieca Buck gives this advice to schoolmates who are thinking about getting into a fistfight: "Just walk away and be the better person."

Pretty good advice, especially considering it's coming from a fourth-grader.

Donnieca, a student at Dunedin Elementary School, is learning how to mediate conflicts through a program at her school.

Pinellas County schools started teaching mediation skills at a handful of middle and high schools in 1991. The program now operates at nearly all district schools.

Students began learning the steps of mediation, based on techniques used in the legal field, as early as third grade.

A recent START (Students Talking and Resolving Trouble) conference at the Stavros Institute in Largo reinforced those skills.

Peer mediators are trained to help their schoolmates solve disputes without resorting to violence.

"We sort of solve problems, like when somebody has a fight with somebody else, you help them come up with a solution to their problem," said Crissie Muhlstadt, 10, a fourth-grader at Pinellas Central Elementary in Pinellas Park.

Crissie said there are several issues that can lead to fights between students: calling names, spreading rumors, breaking promises and being selfish are a few.

As students move on to middle and high school, the issues become more complex, said Valerie Gallina, prevention specialist with Safe and Drug Free Schools.

Older peer mediators undergo two full days of training to prepare for the weightier subject matter.

Wearing a gray "Don't Hate, Mediate" shirt, Marquis Parker, a senior at St. Petersburg High School, said mediation empowers students.

"You try to let them solve it, so you ask them: 'If this happens again, what can you do?' " he said.

Student mediators maintain confidentiality with their schoolmates but are trained to alert the faculty if they pick up on more serious issues.

"We talk about the difference between conflict and bullying so students are really clear about where you cross over the line," Gallina said.

Peer mediators tend to be good listeners and exhibit leadership and empathy, Gallina said.

The vast majority of students who go through peer mediation report satisfaction with the outcome, Gallina said.

"Mediation is the catalyst that brings peace to the school. It helps to promote the culture of peace." Gallina said.


Peer mediation

The peer mediation process that Pinellas County Schools uses has six steps:

1. Mediators introduce everyone and lay out ground rules.

2. Mediators listen to both sides of the story.

3. Mediators help disputants brainstorm for solutions.

4. Everyone works toward a solution agreeable to both parties.

5. The parties then take time to reflect and consider what they can do differently the next time.

6. The participants are congratulated for successfully completing the mediation process.

Summer workshop

A two-day workshop to train educators on conflict resolution and peer mediation will be June 26-27 at the Stavros Institute in Largo. Free. For information, call Valerie Gallina at 588-6338.