Mid Shore Community Mediation Center is partnered with Dorchester County Public Schools (DCPS) in offering students conflict resolution and life skills that school officials report are helping to reduce suspension rates and are being used by students as positive solutions to disputes.
Supervisor of Student Services James Bell, who coordinates the Mediation Center program with the schools, describes the partnership as unique in the state of Maryland. “It is the only true partnership between a community mediation center and a school system,” he said.
Four assigned mediators offer various services in at least one school each day. Led by the Mediation Center’s Youth Programming Director Jennifer Williams, the other mediators are specially trained AmeriCorps members or social work interns from Salisbury University.
A pilot program began last year at Maces Lane Middle School, the result of students themselves asking to learn better alternatives than fighting for resolving disputes. Now expanded to reach the entire school system, mediators are on site in both Dorchester County high schools and at Maces Lane Middle School, and are available to the rest of the schools by referral.
The effort is part of a larger program of initiatives undertaken by the DCPS Office of Student Services to mitigate behaviors and circumstances of all kinds that interfere with students’ ability to negotiate school life successfully. Bell attributes the recent 25-percent reduction in the schools’ suspension rate to the initiatives’ success and the principals’ willingness to implement instructional behavior methods.
Williams hopes to build on that success by having even more AmeriCorps and intern mediators in place for the 2013-2014 school year. Depending on available funding, the goal is to fill four AmeriCorps and four social work or conflict analysis intern positions, allowing further expansion of the program.
Mediation Center Executive Director Cynthia Jurrius thanked The Grayce B. Kerr Fund for a significant grant that made possible the program’s initiation and growth, and the George B. Todd Fund for additional funding. “This support from our local community, as well as the Conflict and Dispute Resolution Office of the University of Maryland Law School, has allowed us to expand our services this year and reach many more youth in our communities,” she added.
Services offered through the partnership are fourfold. Individualized Education Program (IEP) facilitation supports parents and school personnel in working out individually tailored programs for special needs students. Parents also are involved in Attendance Mediations, where they may meet with teachers and students to find creative solutions to underlying problems that are affecting school attendance.
“Peace Teams,” students’ name for the school mediators, provide mediations to resolve specific conflicts between individual students. Additionally, mediators lead “Peace Groups” that bring the conflict resolution skills into the classroom, offering eight-week courses on communication skills, stress reduction and conflict-defusing mechanisms.
Bell noted that it often is not the initial incident that gets a student in trouble. It is the reaction. “Finding an alternative at the point of the dispute can avoid its escalation,” he explained. As a result of exposure to the skills, more students are beginning to self-refer, asking for mediation assistance in resolving conflicts with classmates before disputes get out of hand.
Williams reported that, as of early March, mediators had worked with 223 students during the current school year, conducting 86 Peace Team mediations, with more than 120 referrals for their services. Bell foresees future program expansion to an on-site presence in more schools and extending attendance mediation further into the secondary-school level.
The mediators’ efforts provide students with lifelong skills that can serve them in personal, educational and career relationships. With 2010 U.S. Census Bureau statistics showing Dorchester County with the second highest Maryland county percentage of single-parent families and fourth lowest median household income, DCPS Superintendent Dr. Henry Wagner, Jr., sees a significant need for this support to help his students achieve the quality education necessary to prepare them for college and careers.
Wagner also views the relationship-building as an alternative to gangs and negative influences. “Kids need to feel affiliated,” he explained. “A positive affiliation in the school community promotes hope and prospects for rewriting life scripts, putting control of their lives back into their hands.”
Describing the initiatives as “a sincere gesture of respect toward our students,” Wagner said the investment of time and resources in the effort implies a confidence in the students’ capacity to make the right choices. By offering this program, he said, “we are elevating their status and giving them responsibility for solving their own problems.”
Jurrius noted that the effort is timely, given the nationwide challenge of violence in communities. “DCPS is providing students with alternatives,” she said, “and the opportunity to develop conflict resolution skills that can benefit them in all aspects of their lives. In my vision, the work that DCPS and the Mediation Center are doing could become a model program for kids across the state.”
She hopes that the model established in Dorchester County will be offered someday in the other two counties of Mid Shore Mediation’s service area, Caroline and Talbot. “In this program, we are exposing young people to the foundational life skill for how to productively deal with conflict, which is a normal part of life. We wish we could get this effort to every child.”
Those interested in applying for the new AmeriCorps and intern positions may contact Mid Shore Community Mediation Center at 410-820-5553 or visit www.midshoremediation.org for more information.
In photo: Members of the Peace Team bringing mediation skills to Dorchester County Public School students include, left to right, from Mid-Shore Community Mediation Center, Cody Wehlan, Salisbury University AmeriCorps Member; Damien Ransome, Community Mediation Maryland AmeriCorps Member; Kendall Suydam, Salisbury University Social Work Intern; Youth Programming Director Jennifer Williams; and Executive Director Cynthia Jurrius, with James Bell, Supervisor of Student Services for Dorchester County Public Schools.