A Dispute over School Holidays – “Our Days are Just as Holy as Yours!”

It is no news that religious differences have long been a source of conflict in our world’s history. Today is no different. Ongoing conflicts between Muslims and Hindus, Palestinians and Israelis, and even Catholics and Protestants have made clear the power that religion can have in fueling conflict.

Many have lost faith in the possibility of a world of peace, claiming that as long as religions exist, so will disparities, and therefore so will conflict. It is no wonder why so many mediators have shied away from attempting to solve religiously motivated disputes. But it is exactly because of this loss of faith that mediators are needed more than ever. The world is in drastic need of people to prove that disputes can be solved, conflicts can be overcome, and that there are ways to peaceful means. To deny people of religion would mean to deny people of a sense of community.

Schools have long been viewed as microcosms to the larger community. When issues of religion arise in schools, we can deduce that the issues are probably prevalent in the larger community as well. The use of mediation has recently been praised in schools, particularly public schools, to overcome conflict, especially among students, between administrators and teachers, among teachers, between teachers and students, and between teachers and parents. However, the use of mediators in school disputes involving religion has not yet been explored. This is probably because public schools have learned to fear religion. In recent years, there have been so many new rules and laws over what is religiously permissible and impermissible in the public school system that even the study of religion in classrooms has been on the decline out of fears of lawsuits.

But what happens when the school is facing religiously motivated problems? If it ignores the problems, it will only aggravate them, which will not only compromise the school’s image but also the school’s relationships with its community and the education of its students. Below I have described a controversy that is being raised more and more in public schools across the nation: the place of religious holidays on the school’s academic calendar. Expanding pluralism has challenged the public schools to deal with matters of religious holidays increasingly.

Last month, Bell Hills High School, a public high school that currently enrolls 5,500 students, held a meeting to review its academic calendar for the 2011-2012 school year. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss whether the school should continue to close its doors on certain religious high holidays. For the past 20 years, the school has been giving students, teachers, and administrators days off on certain Christian and Jewish holidays, such as Christmas, Good Friday, Yom Kippur, and the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

For the past 3 years, a group of Muslim parents have been asking to add two of their Islamic holy days, Eid al-Fitr, which celebrates the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, which marks the end of the Hajj yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, to the school’s calendar. Their requests have continuously been shot down by school officials.

During this year’s meeting, the Bell Hills High School Committee decided to add another “no-school” day to their calendar, closing its doors on the second day of Rosh Hashanah as well. Both the school’s Muslim parents and the Muslim Bell Hills community have been outraged by this decision. For years they have been asking for their own religious holidays to be observed, without success. And now the Jewish community will be getting yet another day off for their holidays.

In the last month, the school Committee has received a flurry of threat letters and e-mails from outraged Muslim parents and local Muslim leaders with outcries that they are being treated unfairly and that the school district is discriminating against them. Two weeks ago, 50 Muslims protested outside of the City Hall.

The Bell Hills School District is maintaining that their decision to add the second day of Rosh Hashanah onto the academic calendar has nothing to do with religious preferences. They claim that their decision for cancelling school on certain holidays has always rested solely on economic factors. Because they are a public school, their funding is directly dependent upon student attendance. Furthermore, the school does not have the budget to hire enough substitutes for all of the observant Jewish and Christian teachers who currently work at the school.

The Bell Hills Muslim Community is now demanding that if the school is not going to be willing to observe their religious holidays, that it should then remove all religious holidays off the calendar. They claim that it is not fair for the school to recognize some religions while completely ignoring others.

Last week the School District held yet another meeting to discuss the uproar from the Muslim community. During the meeting, there were some talks of dropping the second day of Rosh Hashanah off the calendar and to go back to the way things were prior to this year’s meeting, with hopes of pacifying the Muslims. The outcry from the Jewish community, however, was quick to follow. The school is now facing outraged members from not only the Bell Hills Muslim community but the Bell Hills Jewish community as well, who after recent events also feel that they are also being religiously discriminated against. Although the school wishes to accommodate everyone’s desires and keep everyone happy, it knows that it cannot do so and that to grant all the parties’ their religious holidays is completely unrealistic.

The school no longer knows what to do. It wishes to keep peace in the community, particularly for the sake of the students who attend the school. It is also saddened that parents have allowed for such discussions to take away from what is truly important, the quality of education for their children.

Desperate for help, school officials have decided to call on a mediator with hopes of solving the issues and coming to a settlement that can keep all parties involved happy. The school is welcoming any of its students, parents, and community members who wish to be present to join the mediation session. Although the school recognizes that a large number of people could potentially show up, which can compromise the mediation session, it fears that not including everyone will be held against them once again on grounds of discriminatory practices

The key stakeholders involved in this situation are the Bell Hills School District and its officials, teachers and staff, its students, the students’ parents, as well as the community members of Bell Hills City, particularly those of Muslim and Jewish faith.

The mediator will have to approach this mediation very strategically, and should have a game plan before the mediation day. First, he will need to make sure that the date chosen for the mediation accommodates the people of both the Jewish and Muslim faith. The meeting therefore cannot be on a Friday night or Saturday. The mediation cannot be held during school or work hours either. Next, the mediator needs to be prepared for the volume of people who may be involved. The school is estimating approximately 150 people to show up to City Hall. The large number of participants can compromise the mediation since it is easier for larger crowds to get rowdy, riled up, emotional and heated. In the event that the crowd is too large, the mediator should create a plan to break down the group into a manageable size. The mediator needs to also prepare for the different personalities that he might come across during the mediation session, and be able to overcome high conflict personalities in order to discover each party’s underlying issues and concerns.

Another major challenge for the mediator is the fact that he must mediate an issue that revolves around matters of religion. Although the mediator has been hired by the school district a dozen times in the past to conduct peer mediations and employee dispute mediations, he has never dealt with a religiously motivated mediation before, particularly one of this magnitude.

Furthermore, the mediator is a non-practicing Jew, who knows little about any of the faiths being represented in this matter. Without a proper knowledge base of the religions, it will be difficult to attend to the parties’ religious needs and be sensitive to their concerns. The mediator should take it upon himself to learn about the groups’ religious traditions. This will not only give him insight into the issues at hand, but will also help build the mediator’s credibility and trust in the parties’ eyes. The mediator must also make sure that his own personal belief system does not cause any biases in his mediation style, and that he will remain neutral throughout.

The mediation has been set for Sunday at 1 pm, in the Bell Hills City Hall.

MEDIATION DAY – Sunday, 1 PM :
As predicted, close to 150 people show up to the auditorium in Bell Hills City Hall, consisting of members of the community, parents, teachers, students, and city religious leaders. The School District’s main officials - the Directors, school Principal and Vice-Principal - take a seat on the main stage.

After 10 minutes of trying to calm the crowd down, the mediator begins with his opening remarks.

Mediator Opening Remarks:
“Good Afternoon. I want to thank all of you for being here today. My name is John and I have been brought here as a certified mediator to help resolve some of the issues that have caused us to congregate. My purpose here today is to make sure that everyone’s concerns are heard, and that we can all come to a peaceful solution, which I am sure we will.

Let me begin by saying that I have mediated Bell Hills school issues in the past, all of which have been resolved. Although I have worked within the School District before, I am not acquainted with any of the parties that are involved in this particular dispute today. I am also not here to represent any side or to take any positions. My involvement today will be insofar as to help all of you have your voices heard and reach a peaceful agreement together.

I want to make sure to remind all of you that I have absolutely no power to impose a decision on you or tell you how this matter should be settled. This is about your needs and your concerns. The School District has asked me to be here today because it wants a peaceful and amicable solution.

I know that everyone has joined me today with hopes of reaching an agreement by the end of tonight. Looking around at the number of people who have showed up, I am proposing an alternative to the way things are currently set up. I am sure that you can all imagine how a mediation with 150 people can get out of control. I am also sure that you all would like your voices to be heard and to have your issues and concerns be discussed in a timely manner and given the utmost consideration. This is not likely to happen if all 150 people wish to talk. For this reason, I would like for our mediation to involve a smaller group of people. I would like each group to designate 5 spokespeople who will become the group’s representatives and mouthpieces. These representatives will stay with me and the School District throughout the rest of the day until an agreement has been reached. This will allow for all of your voices to be better heard. Since I know that everyone here wants their concerns to be addressed, I do not think that anyone will oppose to setting things up this way.

I would like all of you to please break up in groups right now. Will all those who wish to add the Muslim holidays onto the calendar please congregate in Room A (this will be Group A), and all those who are happy with the current calendar to please meet in Room B (this will be Group B).

I will stop by and meet with each group separately and explain what the procedures will be from there. Once the groups have been made smaller, I will reconvene all parties for a joint session and for each party to deliver their opening statements. I am optimistic that all issues will be resolved by the end of the day.”

Separate Mediator Meetings with Group A and Group B – The mediator gives the exact same statement to each group.
“Again, I want to thank all of you for being here today. I know that some of you have concerns, and I can assure you that they will all be heard and addressed. I really want us to come to a solution today that makes everyone happy.

I have passed out a sheet of paper and pen to all of you. I would like for all of you to write down your personal concerns with the School District’s academic calendar, as well as anything else that you would like discussed in the mediation session today. My goal is to make sure you do not walk out of here feeling like you have not been given a voice.

I will collect these lists and compile them to make one big list that addresses all of your concerns and demands. No one’s voice will go unheard in this process. I can assure you that everything on that list will be talked about today.

I want to also remind all of you that confidentiality is a critical part of this process. Anything that you would like to tell me in confidence will remain private and confidential. I am bound by law not to disclose the information voluntarily. Anything you write down on your list will also remain confidential and will not be shared with the other side unless you would like me to do so.

I am very optimistic that today’s session will go very well. I can see that everyone is here with good intentions. I am confident that we will come to a resolution as long as we all work together.

I would like for the group to now designate 5 spokespeople for the group. This can be any 5 people the group desires. Just to help you have an easier time choosing, I’m going to suggest that you first take a poll of those people who don’t wish to be representatives. I am sure that a lot of you wouldn’t mind getting back home to your families. Then, of those who wish to participate in the mediation, you can randomly select the representatives by picking names out of a hat. This is just a suggestion, although you do not have to do it this way. I simply want you to reach an easy and quick consensus so that we can start working on finding solutions.

Please let me know when you are done so that I can reconvene the parties together. The quicker we get started, the quicker we will come to an agreement.”

Both groups finish writing their lists and choosing representatives within an hour. Group A representatives will consist of a Bell Hills City Muslim leader, 3 parents, and 1 student, all of whom are members of the Muslim faith. Group B representatives will consist of a Bell Hills City Jewish leader, 2 parents, 1 teacher, and 1 student, all of whom are members of the Jewish faith. All the other people who were not chosen go home. The School District’s representatives will consist of 2 of its Directors, its Principal, and its Vice-Principal.

Reconvening of Smaller Parties:
“I’m glad to see that each group has chosen its representatives. Now that we are a smaller group, I am excited for all of us to work together and get this mediation started, and I am sure that we will see positive results.

I am going to give each group an opportunity to make uninterrupted opening statements to describe your concerns or problems as you see it. Because it is customary for the party that brought the matter to our attention to begin first, the members of the Muslim faith group shall begin with their opening remarks first, followed by the School District’s opening remarks, and ending with the opening remarks of those from the Jewish faith. Once opening statements are completed, we will transition into a joint discussion centering around possible solutions. At some point, I will break up the session into caucuses, so that I can meet with each group separately. This will help me clarify some questions or concerns that I may have so that I can better assist in helping you solve your own concerns. I’d like to just remind everyone that anything said in the caucuses will remain confidential unless stated otherwise.

At the end of the day, when we reach an agreement, we will write down the agreement and all of us will go over it, verify it, and sign it, and each of us will receive a copy.”

The mediation begins. Throughout the mediation session, each party’s interests are voiced. The mediation goes back and forth between caucuses until the underlying issues are uncovered and until the mediator has found a way to bring everyone to an agreement and solve the dispute.

Muslim Group’s Stated Interests:
“We are outraged that the school is treating us so unfairly and outright ignoring us. Our request to add Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha to the school’s calendar is not unreasonable. After all, they are two of our holiest celebrations. We don’t understand the big deal with giving students an additional 2 days of vacation. If it’s a matter of maintaining the required number of school days, then the school can either start school 2 days earlier or end school 2 days later.

The school is lying when it is saying that its academic calendar is based solely on economic reasons. The school is just using this as an excuse to cover up the fact that they are favoring the Jews. In fact, this is not the first time that they have shown favoritism to the Jews over us. A few years ago, the high school decided to add Hebrew to its foreign language offerings but denied to add Arabic. We are sure that the school added Hebrew more for religious reasons than for academic interests.

The school should remain consistent among all the religions. If they are going to give the Christians and Jews their holidays, then they should give us ours as well. And if they are not going to observe our holidays, then they should not observe any holidays whatsoever.

The Bell Hills City’s Imam is convinced that the 10% of the school’s population who are Muslim deserve to have their holidays recognized by the school district. He feels like this is a significant percentage.

Right now, Muslim students are forced to choose between their education and their faith. If they choose not to attend school on their high holidays, they are forced to miss assignments and make-up classwork. This isn’t fair.”

School’s Stated Interests:
“We feel like we have done everything in our power to deal with this issue with as much sensitivity as possible. We have even agreed to allow that Muslim students miss school on their holy days, without having their absences be unexcused. We have tried to make compromises to keep the Muslim community happy, but our efforts have gone unnoticed.

None of our decisions for the academic calendar are based on religion. We are a public school, and we have policies based on separation of church and state. We’re not allowed to bring religious matters into our affairs. None of the days we give off to students and staff are for religious reasons. We don’t even title the days off as holidays. Christmas falls during “Winter Break,” Good Friday falls during “Spring Break,” and Yom Kippour and Rosh Hashanah are given as “Pupil-Free” days. We do not choose these pupil-free days for religious reasons, but rather for economic ones. These are days that most students and teachers would be absent. Keeping the school open on those days would be very costly for us since we have to pay for substitutes and since the government gives us funding based on student attendance. If we had more Muslim teachers and students at our school, we would be making adjustments to the calendar accordingly.

We are not trying to discriminate against the Muslims. We would love to give every religion its holidays. However, if we start giving Muslims their holidays, at what point do we stop? Next the other religions will be fighting for their holidays too. We will continue to do everything we can to protect the rights of our Muslim students and allow them to practice their religion. But we just cannot afford to give any more school holidays. Bell Hills is a diverse city. If we close the schools down for every single holiday, then there won’t be any school days at all.”

Jewish Group’s Stated Interests:
“We are annoyed that the school would even consider removing our religious holidays off the calendar, especially the second day of Rosh Hashanah, which just got added. We are also insulted that the Muslim community would make such accusations of favoritism toward us. This is probably their way of getting us back for everything happening in Iraq. They feel threatened by us, so they are attacking us. It is not our fault that 45% of the school is Jewish. The Muslims are jealous of us, and that they are making mountains out of molehills for no reasons. This is their way of waging de facto warfare in our community.”

After hearing all sides, the mediator has an important role in assessing the situation and finding creative ways to get all parties on the same page and working toward the goal of settlement. Here are several strategies that John can take to move the parties toward reaching an agreement: 1) Focus on similarities – By allowing for the parties to see that they have more in common than they would think is a great tool in bringing everyone toward resolution. In this instance, John should focus all parties on what is best for the children. At the end of the day, it is about providing the best education possible. Focusing on the children relieves religious tensions and brings everyone’s attention back to what is really important.

2) Have groups create BATNAs and WATNAs – By having each party write down their Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement and their Worst Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, the parties are better able to compare alternative paths for peacemaking and reach consensus on proposals. According to Jessica Notini, “In most settlement negotiations, parties are influenced consciously or unconsciously by their assessment of their alternatives to a negotiated agreement. The better their alternatives, the more they may push for a more favorable settlement. The worse their alternatives, the more accommodating they may be in the settlement negotiations.”

3) Discover the underlying issues that are stopping the parties from reaching agreements.
•School: Turns out that their underlying issue is an economic one. They have recently been hit by severe budget cuts, and cannot afford to give school holidays on just any day. They are therefore forced to close the school on days where attendance would be poor. Not doing this would compromise the quality of the education they offer. They do not want to add the 2 extra days of school in June because teachers have expressed that students lose interest in the summer and do not pay attention. Starting school before Labor Day would cause a lot of absences as well.
• Muslims: Their underlying issue is that they simply feel like their voices have never been heard by the school district. Since they are a minority at the school, they have never had representation, and their requests have therefore continually been shot down.
• Jews: Their underlying interest is to avoid the Muslims from making this into a big deal. The last thing they need is more Muslim-Jew controversies.

4) Get the parties to look at things from the other’s perspective. For example, make the Jews see that if the tables were turned and it was their holiday that was excluded, they would probably be upset as well.

5) Turn the conversation away from emotions and feelings as much as possible. This can be done by focusing the groups on numbers. For example, explaining to the Muslims that it costs $150/day to pay a substitute teacher and that this money is being taken away from their children’s educational resources may help calm them down and refocus them on what is truly important.

6) When the parties seem to be on the path toward settlement and are no longer emotionally riled up, reconvening the parties can be a good idea. According to Johnson and Johnson (1994 : 89), “face-to-face interaction with peers from various religious backgrounds can contribute toward improving attitudes such as tolerance and respect.”

7) Put things in writing – this strategy helps people view things objectively, reducing the emotional charge and allowing for the mediation to progress.

8) Most importantly, build trust among all parties and maintain positivity. Without a sense of trust and optimism, the whole mediation session can be compromised. We can see that John does repeat on numerous occasions that he know a resolution will be reached. Saying it will help make it a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The parties agreed to keep the current schedule as-is tentatively, but as long as the school can prove that all the days that it is closed throughout the school year are for economic reasons. If this can be proven, then the Muslim community will drop its unfair equity claims. The school has apologized to the Muslims for its perceived insensitivity, and has promised to do all in its power to respect Muslim holidays – there will be no tests or homework administered on Muslim Holidays, and no scheduling of sporting events or meetings either.

But something even greater came out of the parties’ agreement. The school, through this experience, realized that this conflict arose because it had failed to create an environment where everyone’s voices could be heard and everyone’s concerns could be addressed. The school has now decided to create a program that encompasses students, teachers, parents, and the community as part of an ongoing dialogue to keep everyone involved with the major decisions in public education. The purpose of the program will be to foster the values of compassion, respect and appreciation of others’ differences, through workshops that bring all parties together to discuss their cultural and religious differences with hopes of teaching them how to mediate and resolve conflicts on their own.

Diversity as strength is the lesson learned here. When we lack the knowledge about what makes people different than us, we are prone to creating stereotypes. But if we can foster environments that teach us about our differences, then these differences will no longer be a point of contention, but rather a resource for building stronger ties within our communities. In his article “Can Religious Differences be Mediated?” Donald O’Reardon states that “while religious positions can’t be mediated, positions from religion can.” I began this paper by describing the role which religion has played in creating much conflict. But in the same way that religion has the power to create disparities and fracture communities, it also has the power to bring communities together. This is where the true beauty of religion lies. It has the power to mobilize people, to inspire, to create. It can bring hope and love into people’s homes and hearts. With this realization, I hope that we all embark on a journey to find the peace-builders within us, using the morals of our own religions to bridge gaps and extinguish conflict once and for all.

by Neda Mesri
Carbone, Michael P. Mediation Strategies:A Lawyer’s Guide To Successful Negotiation, July 2004, http://www.mediate.com/articles/carbone7.cfm, Accessed 11/24/10. Johnson, D., Johnson, R. Learning together and alone, cooperative, competitive, and individualistic learning. Needham Heights, MA: Prentice-Hall. 1994. Notini, Jessica. “Effective Alternatives Analysis In Mediation: “BATNA/WATNA” Analysis Demystified” January, 2005. http://www.mediate.com/articles/notini1.cfm, Accessed 12/01/10. O’Reardon, Donaldson. “Can Religious Differences Be Mediated?” August, 2010. http://www.mediate.com/articles/oReardonD2.cfm, Accessed 11/28/10. “Religious Holidays in the Public Schools” http://www.freedomforum.org/publications/first/findingcommonground/B08.Holidays.pdf, Accessed 12/01/10. Tollison, A. C., Green, E. W., Maxwell, M. and Richardson, E. , 2010-06-22 “Modeling Face-to-Face Conflict Mediation” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Suntec Singapore International Convention & Exhibition Centre, Suntec City, Singapore Online . 2010-11-15 from http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p404857_index.html

Neda Mesri is a student at Pepperdine University Graziadio School of Business and Management, receiving her Masters in Business Administration with a concentration in Dispute Resolution. She is also completing a Certificate in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Insitute for Dispute Resolution. Neda hopes to apply ADR techniques to disputes that arise in the business environment.