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Peer Mediators Hitting Their Stride At Washington Middle School

Peer mediators take part in a fun learning activity during a mediation training produced by Peaceful Schools.

Students and staff at Washington Middle School continue to make progress in a program designed to make their school a better place.

In its second year, peer mediators at Washington are already making an impact on resolving conflicts at school. Peer mediators are neutral facilitators in a voluntary communication process to help resolve conflict between students.

“We’ve seen a lot more students using it this year because it’s developed and word has spread,” said eighth grade student Tommy Kathman. “The more people that have done it, the more they talk about how positive of an experience it was.”

Kathman and fellow eighth grade student Colton Miller both participated in the program last year and participated in an interactive training with Peaceful Schools, a Syracuse-based organization of educators who work to reduce youth violence. Mediators, in addition to Kathman and Miller, for the 2023-24 school year are Aicha Alfonso, Elin Isaacson, Gabriella McFadden, Elle Theofilactidis, Lyann Rosado, , Melina Singleton, Maria Lechuga Rosario, Danxielle Santiago, Nyah Rodriguez, Gia Bell, Arabella Washer, and Ethan Miller.

“I’ve learned a lot about how to work through a mediation situation better,” said Miller. “Being able to handle and help those students with problems and help them to take control of their situation has been great.”

From left, Tommy Kathman, Ethan Miller, Colton Miller, Gia Bell, and Melina Singleton simulate a mediation session.

Debbie Oakes, an ENL teacher, and Desiree DeMarte, Washington’s teacher on special assignment (TOSA) who supports students and staff, co-advise the program. Together, they help coordinate training and hold club meetings to debrief on mediations (no details on the disputants or issues, but just their observations/struggles/ insight on their part as mediators), to practice mediating, and to have some team-building fun.

“Peer mediation is important for a few reasons: It teaches our youth the skill of navigating through conflicts (the mediators as well as the disputants), and they will carry that tool with them their entire lives. Also, it gives power to the student body; they are able to handle many of their own problems,” Oakes said, also noting that it’s “important to empower them to have a stake in their schools.”

Mediation looks like a meeting between the two students, a peer mediator, and an adult to observe the mediation.

“It’s the process of getting the two parties to process the problem themselves before things get physical or before it gets taken to a principal and there has to be a higher consequence,” Miller said.

“We’ll start and gather the info and have them speak one at a time,” added Kathman. “When we go to the next person, it’ll be completely on a clean slate. We gather both of their stories and then list the issues and then have them work with each other and think of ways to solve it. Then we’ll write up an agreement.”

Washington Middle School peer mediators are introduced to staff members during a recent faculty meeting. The students who have been selected as mediators will work closely with staff to help resolve conflict between students.

“The agreement basically just outlines what they have to agree to do and then it gets sent out to the teachers and the principals,” Miller added. “Pretty much 100% of the time, they follow their agreement. And it’s 100% confidential.”

DeMarte, a longtime math teacher at the school, recently took on the TOSA role after the new year. In it, she now has more flexibility to help coordinate the mediations.

“I am able to do all of the mediations in my office,” she said. “The veteran mediators have done all of them this year, with one or two new members observing. We will begin to pair a new member with a veteran member soon to bring them all on board. Since I am doing the mediations, Debbie has taken over the meeting with the students (where I can drop in when available). It is working out well.”

Andrea Marsh, assistant principal at Washington, has also been involved in the program.

“We are trying to teach students the importance of communication and empathy,” she said. “We are working to make our school community a positive place to be. Middle School students often get stuck in their issues with their peers and aren’t sure how to solve them best. Our hope is that this is a way to teach them the best ways to solve them”

And while it has certainly been a learning experience for the students involved, the adults helping to shepherd the program have also learned a great deal.

“Education works best when it is student centered,” DeMarte said. “The more we can get students to take charge of, the more students will learn. When given the opportunity, students have proven to be effective teachers for each other, which can be more meaningful than what adults can do.”

I have enjoyed spending time with the mediators – getting to know them as individuals,” said Oakes. “Every single one of them is a special, bright, enthusiastic, and caring young personality. It’s extremely inspiring and fulfilling to be around them and watch what they can do.”

Added Marsh, “The majority of our peer to peer issues are misunderstandings or sharing of wrong information. Our peer mediators are learning problem solving skills that take them beyond their years as middle schoolers. Giving students the opportunity to take a leadership role in their school has proven to have a high success rate.”

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