Blessed are the student peacemakers

Peer mediators get perks, power -- and responsibility -- helping fellow middle school students resolve conflicts

Anthony Middle School student Anthijuan Beeks, Jr. likes the idea of being on the right side of the law. The 8th-grader became a peer mediator this year, helping defuse confrontations between his fellow students. Beeks is one of 42 students participating in Anthony's peer mediation program, wherein students resolve differences without risking suspension or taking up valuable teacher time.

Currently, Minneapolis Public Schools have over 40 peer mediation programs to resolve disciplinary problems among students from myriad cultures. Last year at Anthony, 5757 Irving Ave. S., student mediators handled 400 cases among the school's 600 students.

"Being a peer mediator is fun," Beeks said. "You get to be a big shot and you get to be in everybody else's business and help friends with their problems."

However, with power comes responsibility. "The basic goal is to prevent kids from fighting," he noted. "If they do go out and fight, then teachers might think that I am not doing my job and they won't call me in to mediate any more. So I can't let kids walk over me. I have to get results."

Beeks said the hardest part of being a mediator is keeping secrets from friends. "They get mad because I get some good stories and I can't tell them," he said.

Mediators come from 6th, 7th and 8th grades. Within their ranks are honor roll students, jocks, nerds and students who are often in trouble themselves. Their goal is not to judge or give advice, but to listen and help kids work out their differences.

Mediators must have at least a C average and a good attendance record. Since they might be pulled out of class to do mediation at a moment's notice, they must stay abreast of their schoolwork.

Nolana Holloway, a former Anthony student and peer mediator from the early 1990s, now manages the program at her alma mater. According to Holloway, 90 percent of Anthony's mediations are successful. She said the program helps reduce the number of suspensions at the school.

Holloway's presentation to the student body details what the program is, how it works, why it's important and how students can access it. Then the kids vote on who they want as their mediator. She said they usually choose somebody they look up to.

"It's a common language at Anthony to say 'I want a mediation,'" Holloway said. "The majority of issues are he said/she said stuff, rumor and gossip. There are not a lot of major conflicts; it's more tit-for-tat stuff. Kids bring other kids to the mediation table, and teachers can call a mediation between kids, too."

Everybody at Anthony has to walk the walk, Holloway said. Teachers call mediation between themselves and other teachers, and sometimes there are administrator-teacher mediations (though students don't supervise those). "Nobody stands outside the pale; everybody at Anthony plays by the same rules," she said.

When conflict arises, each party gets his or her own mediator. The sessions occur in Holloway's office. The disputants agree on ground rules before they sit down. Verbal abuse, smart remarks and making faces are not allowed. Students are required to listen and are encouraged to use "I" statements such as "I feel really angry when you talk that way to me" as opposed to "You" statements such as "The way you talk to me is really mean."

Each student tells his or her side of the story. When one is done, the other has to repeat the story to ensure that each person understands the other's point of view. Though there is an adult within earshot of the mediations, he or she typically does not get involved.

Bryce Jones, a 6th-grader at Lake Harriet Community School's upper campus, went to school an hour early each Wednesday and Thursday in January and part of February to learn peer mediation skills.

"You have to sit [complainants] down and ask them if they know why they are here," said Jones, who was one of 10 trainees. "And if they don't know, you have to explain it to them. We were told not to take sides but to help kids solve their problems and not solve their problems for them."

His first mediation involved a group of girls who were kicking, tripping and throwing water in the face of a male classmate on the playground. Jones said only one of the girls came to the mediation, but that it was enough.

"The boy didn't overreact," Jones said. "The girl explained that she didn't know that he didn't like it and that she didn't hear him when he was saying stop. She agreed not to do it anymore and he agreed to speak up more."

Cheryl Pittman, assistant principal at Anthony, said most mediations spring from misunderstandings. If issues are not settled the first time, students often come back to the mediation table and revisit the issue.

"We try to make sure that everybody gets mediations who needs it," Pittman said. "There are no negative confrontations. Students can tell the truth and know there will be no repercussions."

At the end, Pittman or Holloway go through the agreement to make sure that every issue has been addressed that put them there in the first place. "They work out an agreement that is acceptable to both parties, they sign agreement, shake hands and hopefully it won't happen again," Pittman said.

Why would a kid want to be a mediator?

Though students are shy to mention it, one of the perks is an excuse to get out of class and see some action. Holloway added there is a certain status involved that, once attained, kids don't want to lose.

"They have respect here and pride themselves on being peacemakers. They take responsibility for the school and break up potential problems. And they love it."