"Young people say, 'What is the sense of our small effort?' They cannot see that we must lay one brick at at time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the one action in the present." - Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement

Peace Talks: Youth Mediation in Middle School. A recent book by Washington Post writer, Linda Perlstein, is subtitled: The Secret Life of Middle-Schoolers. Even the title might make parents wonder what does go on at school and in social settings for what some call the tween-age kids. One thing that's certain is that as kids get older, the potential for conflict with their classmates increases. Clicks and gangs develop, puberty arrives, dating begins, school work gets harder, as does competition in both the classroom and for spots on sports teams. And those trends that start in middle school only intensify in high school. This time on Peace Talks, we focus on youth mediation programs that are designed to help young people handle this conflict. Two adults and one young person are featured. Lilly Irvin-Vitela is the director of the New Mexico Center for Dispute Resolution in Albuquerque. Ellie Dendahl coordinates the school mediation program in Santa Fe for the Center for Dispute Resolution. Elena Carnes survived her middle school years and is now a junior at Sandia Prep and a writer for the school newspaper, the Sandia Prep Times.

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LILLY IRVIN-VITELA ON MEDIATION: In the past, when students were told to "Say you're sorry," and let's pretend this is over, chances are they'd be having a fight down at the park after school. Mediation is a process for people to do some problem-solving. One of the things that mediation offers that the traditional model of telling kids how to resolve their differences doesn't offer is that mediation offers a real opportunity to have resolution. Telling students to "apologize" [to each other], just minimizes what their feelings are, it looks over the conflict, it doesn't allow them to have ownership over their own feelings. And so it's very disempowering. But when they have an opportunity to just speak for themselves in just their own words, in a safe place where they know the information isn't going to go out, they really do amazing things and they're incredibly resourceful. And we have a lot of faith in mediation that students know their needs best. They know them better than any adult can guesstimate about what their feelings are. Mediation offers them a healthy way to deal with their conflict.

ELLIE DENDAHL ON UNDERSTANDING YOUNG PEOPLE'S PERSPECTIVE: Adults tend to think that kids problems are easy to solve. It's that thing like, "tell each other that you're sorry and let's be done with it." And would you ever say that to an adult? No. Everyone wants to sit down and talk about it, everyone wants to go to therapy to work their problems out. It's all relative....A lot of times kids just say, "I want to fight him or fight her." And I say "Well that's your choice, but you have to own the consequences also. And if you come to mediation, that's your choice also because it's entirely voluntary." By modeling good conflict resolution skills, we can teach kids that all conflict doesn't have to result in violence, and that conflict is a natural occuring event in our lives.

ELENA CARNES ON HOW MEDIATION EMPOWERS YOUNG PEOPLE: Ironically I don't think violence is really empowering at all. It really just drains you so much emotionally and physically. When you're able to talk it out and find a resolution - espeically on your own - it really just makes you feel so much better and gives you so much more self-worth. ON BULLIES GROWING UP: You sometimes see a recurrence of the [bullying] behavior but as they grow up and they find themselves, a lot of times they do grow out of it. I can remember a bully who was in the fourth grade class who used to threaten to beat up the third grade class, which was my class. I saw her, not so long ago and she apologized for being that way. She was just going through a hard time with her family. Her parents were getting divorced. Her sister had just moved away to college. It was just a difficult time for her. Unfortuantely she had no one to turn to. It's good that there are programs like this because maybe she could have been able to get help sooner. But nevertheless, she really grew up and she learned other ways and she learned to accept herself.


LILLY IRVIN-VITELA ON THE SOURCE OF SOME MIDDLE SCHOOL CONFLICTS: [Conflicts will sometimes start] with disrespect and name calling that tend to be racial slurs. Sometimes it's the exclusion of one group or one group speaking in a laguage the other group doesn't understand and having them take offense. Like "Oh, you're clearly talking about me." There's this clearly egocentric attitude among English speakers sometimes that "if you're talking in Spanish, it must be about me." And it creates misunderstanding. The kids aren't going to say, "we're fighting about (racism or classism)." but it's "you're different" and "different" isn't OK. I also see kids fighting around issues of class, but it's never called a class issue. It's like, "I don't like you because you're stuck-up..." or "I don't like you because you don't join anything and you're just a loser." There's this lack of understanding sometimes among kids about why people are different. Those differences are just seen as bad things.

ELLIE DENDAHL ON THE MEDIATION STEPS: If they're both willing to come in to mediation, we sit down and I have each of them tell their story with the other person in the room so that the other person understands their point of view and their perspective. It's there where a lot of people start realizing there's been some miscommunications or some assumptions or misunderstandings. Then they start clarifying. That's when I ask them, "how do you describe this to me as something that you can carry forward. And then depending on the participants, we do a verbal agreement or a written agreement. A lot of them really like the written agreement because it gives them something more concrete that they can hold.

ELENA CARNES: I can definitely see how the verbal agreement and the written agreement, considering it's so concrete, really helps the students define themselves. When you're growing up, especially in those pre-teen years, it really helps develop who you are and your maturity level. When you go through these steps of mediation, it really helps you in life later.




IN SANTA FE CALL, 505-670-8604

NEW MEXICO TRAININGS COMING UP NOVEMBER 13th and 14th, 8:30-5:30; NOVEMBER 21st and 22nd, 8:30-5:30; DECEMBER 12th, 8:30-5:30




WEB PUBLICATION: CONFLICT RESOLUTION EDUCATION: A U.S. Dept. of Justice and Dept. of Education Report