“What is said in here stays in here,” Schenectady High School junior Shanteesh Stewart told the two young women sitting on either side of a round table with her, ready to mediate their differences. “And we don’t take sides.”
Stewart laid out the ground rules for a student mediation, which at Schenectady High and the district’s three middle schools is used to resolve conflicts, mend friendships, transition suspended students back to school and improve a classroom’s culture.
Stewart and Samantha Torres, a senior and president of the student mediation club, have joined Schenectady High graduates Erin Thiessen, class of 2012, and TeAna Taylor, class of 2012 in the room. Thiessen and Taylor became mediators while in school and now coordinate programs at Oneida and Mont Pleasant middle schools, respectively.
Together, the four mediators put on a mock mediation for the Daily Gazette to observe last week. While in training, prospective mediators work through similar mock scenarios to develop the proper process and reactionary skills used in mediation.
The four sat at a round table in a small room. The two students in ostensible conflict sign “consent to mediate” forms before participating. What they say stays in that room unless it involves drug, alcohol or sexual abuse. Everyone puts their cellphones in a plastic bin that sits away from the table.
“Welcome to peer mediation… Who wants to start?” one of the mediators asked, launching into the unknown.
“This girl comes out of nowhere and talking to all the boys that have girlfriends and trying to steal their man,” Thiessen said, playing a high school senior. In the scenario, Thiessen is miffed because Taylor has drawn the attention of her prom date, and he is considering asking Taylor instead.
“I don’t know what she is talking about. I don’t even know her,” Taylor responded, playing a new girl to school.
“You should …” Thiessen said, turning to the student mediators. “Everyone knows her – if you know what I mean.”
The mediators urge the students to discuss their feelings, drawing out constructive responses with questions using key words: “How does it make you feel?” “Did it upset you?” “Does that make you feel differently?”
When the back-and-forth gets heated, the mediators try to calm and diffuse tension, constantly trying to help the students see one another’s sides and perspective and cobble together a resolution.
As the mediation unfolds, high school mediation coordinator Meralys Collazo sits at her desk, part working on her computer and part listening to the mediation’s rhythms. It’s hard to tell how closely she is following the proceedings, but as soon as a mediator looks trapped or the back-and-forth at the table starts to spiral out of control, she intervenes.
“I’m hearing frustration coming from you. It seems like you aren’t expressing what you are frustrated about,” she said to Thiessen, jumping into the conversation. “Are you frustrated about TeAna or are you frustrated because your prom date might want to go to prom with someone else.”
The student mediators are given a lot of rope to lead the conversation but they know they can always fall back on Collazo if needed.
“She knows her mediators, so when we start to get stuck, she will jump in and then she knows when to jump back out,” Stewart said.
Ultimately, Torres and Stewart are able to guide the feuding students to a mutual understanding: Taylor was never trying to steal away Thiessen’s prom date, and Thiessen is probably more frustrated with her date than with Taylor.
“Can you coexist with her?” Torres asked – a question at the heart of where they are trying to get with the students. With hundreds of students crammed into one school, tensions flare up and the mediators aim for a land of peaceful coexistence and constructive dialogue in place of confrontation.
The mediations flood into Collazo’s office as conflicts bubble up throughout the day. Mediations are scheduled as soon as possible – though students are given time to cool off after a direct confrontation. Administrators and teachers refer students to peer mediations and students recommend friends or others go to mediation.
The school-wide program that she directs is managed by nonprofit Mediation Matters, which also organizes adult programs.
So far this year, Collazo and her mediators have conducted 287 mediations – 172 of them helped students avoid suspensions. They also conduct one-on-one conflict avoidance sessions with students – sometimes instead of mediation, sometimes before or after a mediation. And this year the mediators established mediation circles with entire classes or a large group. The mediators have led 61 circles this year, totaling nearly 900 total students.
Some mediations are quick; it may only take a few minutes to clear up a simple misunderstanding or get friends back to the same page. But other mediations can go on for hours and feed directly into more mediations with a cascading list of characters.
Each mediation follows a similar trajectory: identify feelings, needs and interests; brainstorm topic solutions; and come to an agreement. The mediators guide the students in conflict through the different phases, taking as long as needed on each one, before ending in a final resolution.
At the middle school programs -- which started with Mont Pleasant three years ago but has since expanded to all three in the district -- the mediation coordinators are more involved from the start.
At the high school, there are just over 22 student mediators and dozens more at the middle schools. Some sign up for the culture, others join friends and yet more first come into the mediation office as a student in need of mediation. Collazo estimates that over half of the student mediators started out in a mediation themselves.
“I never saw conflicts resolved in that way; I just saw them ignored or people yelling at each other,” Taylor said.
The more conversations, the more mediations the better, the mediators say.
“The goal is to have an increase in mediations, so it means more people are having these discussions. It’s giving young people a place so they can express themselves and realize that a conversation can resolve 99.9 percent of problems,” said Kashiff Thompson, youth services program manager for Mediation Matters.
For school leaders, mediation is a “restorative practice” aimed at giving students a place to resolve the underlying problems that result in what might be a punishable outburst or confrontation. Sometimes a successful mediation will replace a more severe but potentially less effective punishment.
“It’s a forum for all students to speak to issues at hand and set a goal to resolve it and move forward,” said Phil Weinman, the high school administrator who oversees the mediation program. “If we can successfully mediate, they can avoid punishment.”
In some cases, school officials have students go through mediation after serving an out-of-school suspension. Two students involved in a physical fight might meet to discuss their issues in mediation after serving out their suspension.
And sometimes the mediators need a little help themselves.
“Sometimes they will come and bang on my door and say I have to talk or I am going to explode,” Collazo said.