Peer Mediation in the Classroom—A New Initiative for the State Bar of Michigan

by Gina E. Polley and Francine Cullari

When children feel safe at home, they are ready to grow. When in the neighborhood, children are ready to play, explore and form relationships with other children. When they feel safe at school, they are ready to learn and become confident and competent adults. (Garbarino, 1992).

As long as adults fail to relieve youth of the feeling that the world is against them, violence will continue. A 1995 survey conducted by Louis Harris and Associates for Teens, Crime and the Community 1 examined how young people cope with crime and violence. It investigated their hopes and frustrations, fears and determination. It found that 86 percent of teens would get involved in programs to end violence—if only they knew what to do. The survey offered some bad news as well: The fear of crime and violence has had an impact on youth far beyond what any previous generation has experienced. The survey found that 46 percent of young people have altered their behaviors because of their fear of crime and violence. They have cut classes, stayed home from school, carried guns, changed their routes to school, and stopped playing in neighborhood parks because of their fear.

Out of a concern that children need to learn how to handle their differences peaceably, Nancy Wonch began a Peer Mediation Project in the Lansing Public Schools2 in 1994. The peer mediation program, adopted by the State Bar of Michigan’s Law-Related Education Committee, uses a prepared user-friendly curriculum to teach conflict resolution skills to elementary and middle school youth. Students from participating schools3 receive day-long training sessions on the conflict management process and communication skills. This training is conducted by lawyer volunteers from local bar associations.

During their training, the students are taught how to solve conflicts in a nonviolent manner, as well as how to enhance their own communication and problem-solving skills. Statistics have demonstrated that schools with conflict management programs have fewer fights, disciplines, and behavior problems and a more peaceful atmosphere.4 The students are taught systematic, nonviolent problem-solving techniques with an emphasis placed on developing good listening skills, seeing both sides of an argument, and using verbal and nonverbal communication signals. In addition, the students are instructed in the use of "I" statements, asking open-ended questions, looking at other options, and finding positive solutions to a potentially negative situation.

Once the students have completed their training, they are presented to the school at a school assembly and officially appointed as school mediators. These school mediators then assume playground or lunchroom duty, wearing special t-shirts and hats and carrying clipboards to identify themselves. Once confronted with a potential conflict situation, the students employ their learned mediation skills and attempt to resolve the matter between the disputants. The lawyers return once a month for additional training, if necessary, offering advice, comments, and practice of mediation skills.

The project encompasses two objectives. First, it addresses the need for youth to be aware of and practice different methods of resolving conflicts. Through peer mediation, young people become more accepting of new ideas and willing to take risks to practice the techniques taught. Second, the attorneys who volunteer to work with the youth in the schools act as role models for the youth. This one-on-one interaction is the essential element to success in the program.

The peer mediation program has been adapted and implemented in three counties in Michigan: Ingham, Kalamazoo, and Genesee. The programs begin with a $5,000 grant that covers materials and attorney training. The attorney training portion is broken up into two sessions. The attorneys return to the school once a month, according to the school schedule, to interact with the peer mediators and to offer hands-on advice.

In the Genesee County/Flint area, the Genesee County Bar Association (GCBA) established a partnership with the Genesee Intermediate School District (GISD), the Mott Children’s Health Center, and the Genesee County Bar Foundation to initiate a peer mediation project. To recruit attorneys, the GCBA reserved a monthly membership meeting for a presentation by Nancy Wonch in 1999. The association’s newsletter and bimonthly magazine solicited volunteers repeatedly. The president and executive director of the GCBA met with the presidents of specialty bars, including the Women Lawyers, Young Lawyers Association, and Mallory Scott VanDuyne Bar Association to promote the program. The volunteers include African-American, Hispanic, young, not-so-young, and semi-retired attorneys and the association’s director.

Students at 12 schools were selected to participate in the program and attended a day-long general leadership training camp off-campus. Teachers, other school personnel, and the attorneys were trained by Sandra Gath, a peer mediator trainer for the GISD using the same California Community Resource Board model used by Nancy Wonch in Lansing. The attorney training lasted eight hours, in two four-hour segments. The attorneys, who then trained the students in specific peer mediation techniques, first met with students in the spring of this year, either at the student leadership camp or directly in the schools.

The $7,860 cost for the first year of the program was contributed by the Mott Children’s Health Center and the Genesee County Bar Foundation. Monies were used for training, including copyrighted training materials, clipboards, snacks, and "pennies" (open-sided vests) worn by the peer mediators for identification on the playground. In-kind contributions were made by GCBA, GISD, and the State Bar.

The attorneys met mid-program to exchange information and share their experiences with each other and the GISD. The enthusiasm was palpable. After initial apprehension by some attorneys, each found his or her niche with the students. One attorney stated that she would leave the practice of law if someone would pay her to have so much fun full-time. Another attorney reported that she had not had such a rewarding experience in years. A third was so interested in helping the student mediators and students that he is becoming involved with educators to have a greater impact on the lives of certain students. Almost every attorney has interacted with the students more than the original frequency of one time per month.

At the end of the year, school personnel from the 12 schools met with the GISD and the attorneys to exchange stories and camaraderie. One student reported great success in mediating a dispute between two good friends who had had a disagreement. Such stories abound in the field of peer mediation and have led to the expansion of the program to 20 schools in Genesee County for 2000-01.

The Comstock East Elementary School in Kalamazoo County has just received a $5,000 grant from the State Bar Foundation to start a peer mediation program. The Kalamazoo County Bar Association has been contacted and several lawyers have committed to work with the project. The school administrators have committed to the success of this program as well. The program is slated to begin September 2000 with 30 fifth graders who will be trained as peer mediators for the school. The lawyer volunteers will receive the necessary training before school starts so the students’ training can begin within the first few weeks of school. The peer mediation program will continue throughout the school year. Toward the end of the 2001 school year, a select group of fourth graders will begin training to take over the peer mediation project as fifth graders the following year.

Recognizing the need for some type of prevention programming in the schools, the Attorney General’s office has drafted and mailed a response survey to all the school districts in Michigan to determine how many school districts are currently using peer mediation programs and which programs the school districts feel are effective.

For the future, the State Bar of Michigan’s Law-Related Education Committee plans to organize a Conflict Resolution Summit in 2001. This summit will invite school administrators, school personnel, and other interested persons to observe the three models of the peer mediation program and how it works in a large, medium, and small school district. The summit will also provide information about various funding sources.

If you are interested in obtaining more information about the peer mediation program or if you are interested in becoming a volunteer to work with the youth, please contact the State Bar of Michigan’s Law-Related Education Committee.


1 Teens, Crime, and the Community: Education in Action for Safer Schools and Neighborhoods. 3rd Ed, 1998, Int’l Pub Co.

2 "Peer mediation aimed at reducing conflict, violence among students," Briefs, September 1999.

3 Currently the schools selected include various middle and elementary schools in Lansing (Ingham County), Comstock East Elementary School (Kalamazoo County) and various schools in Flint (Genesee County).

4 Id.

Gina Polley was director of the Children’s Center for Justice and Peace in Highland Park. She practices worker’s compensation law and is the program director for Fobbes Management and Communications in Detroit.

Francine Cullari is immediate past president of the Genesee County Bar Association. She serves on the State Bar of Michigan Representative Assembly, four State Bar committees, and is a fundraiser for the Access to Justice program. She is a Detroit College of Law graduate practicing in Grand Blanc.

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