Prioritize This: Mediation to Manage Conflict in Schools

It is laudable that Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder — despite their shortcomings in other areas — denounced school suspensions last week as the sham they have proven to be. Not only is there no evidence that out-of-school suspensions and zero-tolerance measures improve the school environment, there is abundant evidence that they disproportionately affect students of color and those with disabilities.

Although they are only beginning to spell out exactly how students can be effectively disciplined in lieu of suspension, federal officials suggested that schools offer “staff training on conflict resolution,” among other remedies. While I am not so bold (or naïve) to suggest that conflict resolution is the same as effective discipline, I am hoping that these seemingly innocuous words will be at the heart of the new nationwide regulations. This is far from certain given the preponderance of alternative responses, such as increasing rewards or positive reinforcement for desired behavior, but now is the time for advocates of school-based mediation and restorative practices to make their voices heard.

In some jurisdictions they are already being heard: Joshua Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, all but endorsed restorative practices at a public event in Rockville last year when he encouraged administrators to find ways to address negative behavior without removing students from school. Moreover, my organization, the Conflict Resolution Center of Montgomery County (CRCMC), is in touch with the Maryland State Department of Education about training in restorative practices as well as the staff of two schools — City Springs Elementary/Middle in Baltimore and E.L. Haynes Public Charter in Washington, D.C. — that are implementing classroom circles, community conferences, restorative questions, and restorative discipline. We have already started offering training in restorative practices to a few local schools that are new to the concept.

Out of all of our programs and services, I believe that our In-School Mediation Program — developed in late 2011 as a means of increasing our response-time to school-based conflicts and our overall output — has the strongest potential to prevent suspension, improve student behavior, and transform the school environment from one of tension to one of collaboration.

Unlike the more commonly used peer mediation model, our mediators all come from outside the school and are all adults with at least 40 hours of training. They are volunteers and receive no compensation for their work other than the satisfaction of preventing a fight, suspension or broken friendship. With the help of the counselors and administrators, they identify simmering conflicts in the school, prioritize those conflicts based on level of intensity, prepare each individual involved, and hold the mediation — leaving after a three-hour shift or once the work is complete.

To give a shining example: at one of our schools in late 2013, we received a rare referral involving a conflict between a student and a teacher. Referrals generally come from counselors, administrators and the students themselves, but this one came from another teacher concerned about the situation. Because the overwhelming majority of referrals involve student-to-student conflicts (which are handled using the same process but with less concerns about power dynamics and consent), there was some anxiety around this case. Furthermore, it is often difficult to get teachers to agree to mediate with a student even with the encouragement of other staff. In this particular case, however, this was not a problem.

For the sake of confidentiality, the student will be called “Kayla,” and the teacher will be called “Ms. Jackson.” Kayla is an Honor Roll student who, nevertheless, has struggled in Ms. Jackson’s class academically and behaviorally. Ms. Jackson attributed Kayla’s standoffish behavior in class to the below-par grade she received last quarter as well as her own refusal to raise it despite a parent-teacher conference and promises by Kayla to make-up missed assignments. Kayla said that she was bored and confused during instruction but had no grudge against Ms. Jackson and felt unfairly singled-out by her frequent re-directions. Kayla also admitted she had anger issues, which contributed to her strained relationship with Ms. Jackson, and took responsibility for finding ways to prevent public outbursts. Both agreed that mediation could be effective in setting boundaries and relieving tensions given that they would have to see each other almost daily throughout the rest of the school year.

The mediation was scheduled later that day during Ms. Jackson’s free period. Kayla was surprisingly vocal in telling her story despite the three adults (including two mediators) in the room. Ms. Jackson listened intently and told her own side in great detail. Kayla quickly conceded that her classroom behavior and work ethic were subpar but explained that it was not due to a grudge over grades but her perception that Ms. Jackson was misinterpreting her behavior and unfairly calling her out for it. One incident occurred the previous day when Ms. Jackson gave instructions and noticed that Kayla and another student were talking instead of getting to work. Ms. Jackson said she told both students to move into their work areas, but only the other student complied, while Kayla dragged her feet and had “an attitude.” Kayla explained that the other student was giving her a pep talk because she was upset about something that had happened earlier and was planning to get to work as soon as they wrapped up their conversation. The mediators then reflected[1] that Kayla’s tendency to overreact when upset — sometimes even storming out of the classroom — was an issue they both were trying to address in different ways. They agreed that this was causing them the most anxiety and proceeded to collaborate on a solution.

During a brainstorm facilitated by the mediators, Ms. Jackson and Kayla decided that if Kayla felt close to a meltdown for any reason, she would raise her hand and ask to go to the bathroom — when what she really needed to do was take a private moment to cool down— and Ms. Jackson would grant her permission. The idea was that a slight subterfuge would take the pressure off Kayla, who was worried what her peers would say if they knew she was upset or angry. At the same time, it would allow Ms. Jackson to rest-assured that an outburst would not occur within the classroom and give her a private means to check on Kayla if the situation called for it. Kayla also agreed to pick up her performance in class, to ask if she needed help, and to take responsibility for managing her anger. For her part Ms. Jackson agreed to refrain from redirecting Kayla publicly unless it was absolutely necessary. The agreement was written up by the mediators and signed by both participants, who each received a copy. Due to the cheerfulness of the participants after the session, the mediators decided that no formal follow-up would be necessary but encouraged Ms. Jackson and Kayla to return if they had any further concerns.

The whole process took about an hour and a half. Despite the fast pace of a school day and the difficulty inherent in discussing serious issues face-to-face, Ms. Jackson said the mediation was “completely worth it” and suggested that the entire staff and administration be trained in it.

While this was an exceptional case in many ways, even ordinary mediation sessions can turn a potentially violent situation into a nonviolent, collaborative discussion with little time and resources expended. In just two years we have seen suspension rates drop while receiving participant satisfaction rates upwards of 85 percent. Moreover, administrators and counselors have reported a positive impact on school culture, observing students independently using skills learned in mediation to self-manage conflict. We expect the trend to continue as we strengthen and standardize our program so that it can be easily replicated.


[1] CRCMC mediators do not offer suggestions but reflect back what participants say to each other using a skill called “Strategic Listening,” which is part of the Inclusive Mediation Model taught by CRCMC’s partner, Community Mediation Maryland.

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5 Takeaways from the National Restorative Justice Symposium in Toronto

Last week I returned from the National Restorative Justice Symposium in Toronto, where I led a workshop on some preliminary findings from my thesis research on applying restorative and transformative justice to cases of sexual violence — specifically in the context of leftist, anti-authoritarian groups whose members view what many consider to be the proper authorities (i.e. the police) as an absolute last resort.

Although Niagara Falls beckoned me away from attending the entire two days, I learned much that will stick with me as I continue my research and practice, which is beginning to warrant the label of ‘career,’ and I must say that I am happy to report this as someone who sneered at the word three years ago and would routinely dodge the question: ‘what do you do?’ at parties and other social situations. This brings me to the first takeaway:

1) You can actually make a career out of restorative justice, even though most people (including the unfriendly security officer who interrogated me while crossing the border back into the States) still do not know what it is.

Based on the quality of presenters, the depth of the informal interactions, and the sheer number of attendees (at least 300), I have no doubt that even if I stumble professionally in the States, there will be opportunities for me in Ontario, Nova Scotia, or elsewhere in the under-appreciated nation of Canada — which, despite having one tenth the population of the States, likely has just as many people who know what restorative justice is (and more kindness than a Naomi Shihab Nye poem).

I am already beginning to learn French in case I end up in Quebec. If I need to visit home, I can just take Megabus from Toronto for only $80 round-trip. I am no corporate shill…but thanks, Megabus!

2) You learn more from your detractors than from your defenders…as long as they are informed.

This was the first time I remember hearing any direct criticism of the subject of my thesis from an informed perspective. While I immediately recognized the value of it, this experience resulted in considerable thought and reflection. Of course, this would not have been a source of anxiety at all if I were in a field that was strictly objective, such as history, rather than normative. As Marx said (paraphrasing here): the point is to change the world and not to merely understand it. But I digress.

You just don’t get that when you present something relatively esoteric to your friends and family who care more about their relationship with you than their actual thoughts toward your subject matter. You also don’t get that when you present to strangers who haven’t been doing the work as much or as long as you have. The best thing is to present to people with as much or more experience in that area. You might get torn apart, but you learn valuable lessons.

3) Something is terrible wrong with the way we treat our youth.

One of the keynotes, Dr. Martin Brokenleg, a psychologist, youth worker, and inspiring speaker of the Lakota people, taught me that our failure to treat youngsters as equal human beings in society borders on criminal. He did not focus on the obvious forms of child abuse and neglect, but those that are so routine and entrenched that no one would label them as such. For example, most schools in North America start their day somewhere between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. despite research demonstrating that children function biologically on a much different schedule than the dictates of capitalism (i.e. their parents’ work schedule). In short, if we want our children to perform better in school, we should start the day much later and allow them to sleep in.

We should also allow them to relate to more people starting at a very young age. This is something lost on the West but standard in all collectivist cultures. The nuclear family model was designed to maximize consumerism during a period of unprecedented economic growth. It was not designed to meet the emotional, intellectual, or social needs of children.

4) New-Agey shit kills credibility and should be challenged.

With all due respect to well meaning folks who are looking to drop real knowledge, I am tired of made-up terms and pseudo-scientific ideas and practices that get mixed in with careful research. This is not to say that I have no appreciation for the arcane or occult, but they should not be presented in an everyday context without a disclaimer.

Any newcomer who comes into a conference dedicated to a relatively marginal topic like restorative justice is likely to judge the whole field based on the craziest idea or person he or she comes in contact with. I want to be judged based on the best the field has to offer. This is why I will continue to (politely) challenge less-than-convincing postulations on the nature of the soul or on where love comes from or on how our body responds to certain stimuli. Why more people do not do this — even when I can see the doubt in their eyes — is an open question.

5) Humanity is worth helping.

Just as Maslow considered altruism to be even higher than self-actualization (but died before he could make it an official part of his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’), helping others to me is essential to my own well-being, and I find myself faced with an identity crisis when I feel that I am not doing enough in that regard.

More importantly, though, people are worth my help. They are worth yours as well. What inspired me most of all from the conference was a family that spoke publicly for the first time about their experiences with victim-offender dialogue, which is generally provided many years after a major crime while the offender is behind bars and is offered in most of the United States as well as Canada. It was a mother/grandmother and her two grandchildren/children, whom she had adopted after her daughter/their mother was tragically murdered by her husband/the father of the children. After 18 years of anger, pain, and confusion, she allowed the young man and woman (now 19 and 20) to meet their father in prison for the first time. She said that most of her friends criticized her decision, asking ‘how could she reconcile with such a monster?’ Her reply was that it wasn’t about her or the s0-called monster but what was best for the children — who wanted to know their father and make sense of their orphan-hood.

The courage of the young man was particularly inspiring to me. Far from holding onto the shame that would likely come from being the son of a murderer, he took pride in his relationship with his father and the difficult journey he took to achieve it. I told him that he and his family’s story was the perfect reminder of why I do the work I do and that, on a personal level, I would use his example to be more forgiving to those who have wronged me and my loved ones.

I had to leave before I started crying.

Gandhi-King Conference 2013

Gandhi-King Conference 2013

I will be presenting my thesis research here. Please attend!

S.Y.R.I.A.

Turkish Protester Killed in Renewed Clashes with Police

Turkish Protester Killed in Renewed Clashes with Police

Four months after the uprising that presented the most serious challenge to Prime Minister Erdogan’s ten-year role, another protester, Ahmet Atakan, was killed during a nonviolent sit-in by a police teargas canister.

5 Key Takeaways from the James Lawson Institute

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Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the first-ever James Lawson Institute (JLI), sponsored by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. If you do not know who James Lawson is, kill your grade school teachers. Rev. Lawson was the main architect of the 1960 sit-in movement in Nashville challenging the segregation of lunch counters. He was also influential in the Freedom Rides and the struggle on behalf of the Memphis sanitation workers. It was he who convinced Martin Luther King to come to Memphis to support that campaign, which eventually succeeded in securing collective bargaining rights and wage increases.

Yet this week-long institute was more about how to change the United States in the present context — granting that progressive organizers, along with politicians, have largely failed to make significant strides in recent decades. For those who are new to strategic nonviolence, I have generated a list of key lessons learned:

1) You do not need to be as moral or committed as Gandhi or Martin Luther King to successfully practice nonviolent civil resistance. You don’t even have to be spiritual.

2) Despite what you might think, history is on the side of nonviolence. Researchers Erica Chenoweth (who is a spectacular person as well as academic) and Maria Stephan have convincingly demonstrated that since 1900, nonviolence has succeeded in toppling dictatorships and otherwise effecting sweeping political change twice as much as violence.

3) Long-term strategic planning is essential for success. Movements cannot get lost in a particular tactic without making it part of a larger strategy (for example, the Occupy Movement got lost in camping).

4) The three biggest indicators that a country is ripe for nonviolent resolution are (strangely enough) increased literacy rates among women, the tenure of the country’s leader, and presence/proximity of fraudulent or contestable elections.

5) While violent repression does reduce a resistance movement’s chances of success, it can backfire and create defections as well as increase support for the movement, particularly if the movement is nonviolent.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE:

Other than Lawson and the amazing staff of the ICNC, my hero of the week (and likely of the year) would have to be Antoinette Tuff, the clerk who saved the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Georgia by convincing an ex-student turned gunman to surrender rather than shoot himself or others (and somehow remained calm the entire time). If this doesn’t give the pro-gun crowd something to consider as an alternative to an armed guard in every school, I don’t know what will. NRA spokesdouche Wayne LaPierre has been proven wrong (again).

Why I Admire Chelsea (formerly known as Bradley) Manning

Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, took on arguably the most powerful institution in the world — namely the United States Military — and came away with her dignity intact, despite the apology that left supporters wondering whether it reflected her true sentiments or a desperate effort to reduce her sentence, which now stands at 35 years in prison. David Coombs, Manning’s capable head counsel, remarked in an extended interview that she was in higher spirits than he was after the sentence was announced. Although Ft. Leavenworth is a men’s military prison and she will reportedly not receive treatment for gender dysphoria or any related accommodation, she has apparently already made friends.

I was able to attend her trial at Ft. Meade, Maryland, not far from where I grew up, on the same day, Aug. 14, that she testified before the court and issued the controversial apology for the alleged harm she caused. While I do not believe, based on what I have studied, that the release of the trove of classified documents caused any real harm to the United States (unless, of course, one were to include harming elite interests and the image of the military, which in my view ought to be tarnished if the information were in fact true — and no one, not even the prosecution that sought to paint Manning as a traitor who directly aided the enemy, debates that the information was indeed accurate). Like it or not — whether you are a liberal, a conservative, a moderate, or a radical like me — the United States and its Iraqi clients are responsible for torture, the killing of civilians, false imprisonment, and innumerable other crimes. Manning is no criminal for exposing this; he is a whistleblower who thought the truth would set him free, along with the rest of us. He is a messenger — albeit an inconvenient one — who undeniable went outside the prescribed channels and  broke the law, but to call him a criminal and a traitor merely because he went outside prescribed channels and broke the law would be to call Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr., who marched on Washington, D.C. a little over a 50 years ago, a criminal and a traitor. It would be trivially true in the technical sense but utterly false in the moral sense.

While ‘hero’ is a loaded word, Manning is certainly no villain. She is a scapegoat. It is easier for the government to blame her for endangering the United States for the release of information to foreign governments and organizations on its policies than to question whether it is in fact those policies themselves that endanger the United States. The U.S. government’s heavy-handed response to whistle-blowers like Manning, Edward Snowden, and others indicates to me that it fears domestic accountability for its abuses more than terrorism or any other foreign threat. Glenn Greenwald, whose partner was wrongfully detained for nine hours by British authorities, supports this conclusion in his defense of Snowden. I admire Manning for willingly taking on the role of scapegoat to attempt to hold the government accountable in the court of U.S. public opinion, even though she was blocked from doing so in the court in which she stood trial this past summer. While the national security state’s hegemony remains intact, Manning put a sizable dent in its armor.

Lastly, I admire her for a different reason — for holding true not only to her principles (namely the commitment to peace and justice through ending the unjust occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq) but to her identity, which is just as inconvenient to the military as the crimes she exposed. She is an inspiration to everyone unfairly closeted due to gender or sexual identity and is now one of the leading foot soldiers in the struggle for transgender recognition and equality. Again, I must invoke the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington and remind us that civil and human rights for all have yet to be won. I personally will not feel ‘free at last,’ despite my relative privilege in this society, until Manning is ‘free at last.’ I ask you to support the Manning Support Network and Amnesty International’s demand that President Obama issue Manning a full and irrevocable pardon. I echo the same call for any other whistle-blower who is being unfairly persecuted. This is one small but necessary step in a much larger struggle toward justice for all.

Trayvon Martyr

I work with middle school children of color at a summer camp as a conflict resolution specialist, and this past week, juxtaposed against the usual gossip of adolescence, was much talk of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watchman who murdered the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.

There were hints at potential reprisal, sadness, anger, and even provocation, with one stubborn attention-seeker disingenuously insisting that Zimmerman was innocent in front of a stunned audience of her peers. What was impressive was that by and large they understood more than the jury did — that you cannot follow an unarmed teen against police advice, kill him, and then call it self-defense. They also understood that if Martin had looked like me (a white man) — hoodie or not — he would almost certainly still be alive. He, in all likelihood, would have never been considered suspicious by the likes of Zimmerman at all. To say this had nothing to do with race is to be in denial.

I am not going to discuss the details of the case. I intentionally did not pay much attention because to focus on flaws in the prosecution, the s0-called ‘Stand Your Ground Laws’ (which had a much larger bearing on the case than is commonly recognized due to jury instructions that favored Zimmerman’s defense), and the racial makeup of the jury misses the larger point: The system was set up to fail. And it was set up to fail not only in this case but in every case because the retributive system of justice — which comprises courts, lawyers, judges, police, facts, guilt, innocence, and punishment — is not concerned with social justice or racial justice. It overlooks context, history, and power dynamics. It does not care whether Trayvon Martin’s family finds resolution, and by deciding to let Zimmerman prowl the streets once again with a firearm, it has also shown that it does not care about public safety either.

I entitled this piece “Trayvon Martyr” because in my view Martin is a martyr to the cause of criminal justice reform — albeit unintentionally. Of course, his is not the right time for me to plug restorative justice or some other response as a panacea given the gravity of Zimmerman’s acquittal — I do not believe it is a panacea — but an alternative. It may or may not have been the desired response of the Martin family, but nonetheless it should have been presented as an option for them to pursue and to receive support in that pursuit. Moreover, It should have been presented as an option to Zimmerman, who instead was compelled under the dictates of self-interest to avoid responsibility by hiding behind his lawyers and supporters as well as by (more than likely) bending the truth, if not outright lying, in his public statements. What if Zimmerman had the option to take responsibility without facing punitive consequences? This is the one important question missing from Charles Blow’s insightful July 15 op-ed in the The New York Times, immaculately entitled, “The Whole System Failed Trayvon Martin.”

The clear corollary is that the system not only failed Trayvon Martin: it failed George Zimmerman, who, even if he beats further legal action, will spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder (perhaps, in an ironic twist, wearing a hoodie to hide his face) as a result. The system also failed society by stoking fear and animosity between blacks and whites. Its failure crushed whatever hope some of us still had in American justice. What is the solution? I offered restorative justice as an option that was not explored in this case and is not usually taken seriously by mainstream commentators, especially in the context of serious crimes. I offer it, even though I share a lot of the same feelings of anger toward Zimmerman as my students, because it has the potential to do so much more than send Zimmerman to the same warehouse of human misery that confines so many people of color for minor crimes or no crimes at all — the best-case scenario under the current system for Martin supporters. It has the potential, as Lisa Rea of Restorative Justice International alludes, to allow for healing on the individual as well as the societal level, secure the community through means other than by use of arms, and even transform the offender. None of this is a guarantee, but there is more potential in one honest dialogue between blacks and whites in the United States, whether or not they have ever been involved in inter-communal violence, then in the entire criminal justice system as it stands today. My hope is that by facilitating the death of Martin through its laws and acquitting his killer through its courts, the system has created a martyr whose spirit will haunt it until its own judgment day arrives.

Remember the Fallen

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I know I have been silent for a while. Maintaining a blog is difficult as life always finds ways of distracting you from writing. I’m also in one of those zones where there is just so much to document and discussion that I feel stymied — overwhelmed even. What I want everyone to think about, though, are the fallen activists in Turkey, Egypt, and elsewhere in the world. I even include Trayvon Martin in this because while he may not have been an activist, at least not in the deliberate sense, he has become a martyr to a struggle much larger than he or his family.

These individuals — these martyrs — should be treated with the same respect as fallen soldiers (more respect in most cases, as far as I’m concerned). Here is the story of one young man that is somewhat close to my heart because his death greatly impacted one of my Turkish friends, who knows his family.

His name is Ali Ismail Korkmaz. He died six days ago. He was only 19.

Good Summary/Analysis of the Protests

Click here. Originally published on Alernet. Covers the student and working class dimension:

“When labor joined the protests with widespread strikes from two major union federations on June 4 and 5, the actions gained a strong cross-class composition. Spurred on by strict organizing restrictions in Turkey and blunt police suppression to this year’s May Day protests in Taksim Square, union leaders saw a common fight with young people who had been beaten in the streets and an opportunity to air their economic grievances.”

 

Another good piece can be accessed here.

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