Zaynab Falman tried to ignore the daily fights in the hallways, but by the end of her first year of high school the conflicts and violence were affecting her morale and education. “I realized that the problems indirectly affected me by affecting my teachers and the overall atmosphere,” she said.
Falman volunteered as a peer mediator in a program created by the Troy police department and the local Boys & Girls Club after a sharp rise in juvenile hostilities in 1997. Police data showed that of 1,200 juvenile incidents reported in Troy over a year, one in four involved disputes among peers.
Most of such conflicts occur among middle-school boys aged between 10 and 14, and the idea behind Teens Initiating Peaceful Solutions, or TIPS, is to prevent such juvenile disputes from escalating into crimes, said police community services officer Nicolette Kaptur.
While two out of Troy’s three high schools had peer mediation programs in place, they were only available during school hours and on school grounds. TIPS takes referrals from any age group, at any time of the year, within Troy’s city limits. Mediation referrals are passed along by teachers or other individuals to Kaptur, who contacts the disputants’ parents and, with their approval, brings the two sides together with two peer mediators and an adult monitor.
“What makes our program unique is that it’s the teens doing the mediation,” Kaptur said. “If I didn’t have the teen-agers, we’d be in a situation that you had parents, administrators or police officers telling them they were doing something wrong.”
The attitude of the police department is also critical, said Steve Toth, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club. “The Troy police department is very community-minded,” he said. “They are trying to do proactive preventative things. If you can get the problems when they’re small, then they won’t become police problems.”
While schools nationwide are adopting peer mediation programs — 8,500 schools currently use youth-led mediation to resolve conflict, according to the National Institute for Dispute Resolution — TIPS confronts conflicts that occur outside the confines of an institution.
Studies have shown that teen mediation has a long-term impact on its participants. Eighty-five percent of students trained in peer mediation will use negotiation to handle conflict, NIDR said.
While many of the conflicts TIPS mediates are at the name-calling and boyfriend/girlfriend dispute level, the mediation equips the children with communication and coping tools for the future.
“We’re trying to implant (in their minds) that as you go through life, you’re going to be confronted with things you don’t want, but you don’t have to resort to fighting,” Kaptur said.
All of the TIPS disputants sign a written agreement at the end of their hourlong session, and they are given the option to return if needed. So far, none of the disputants have returned.
“Our track record is good, and we hope to continue with that,” Kaptur said.
Seventeen-year-old Michael Brennan, known as “Mike the Mediator” to his friends, sees his role as getting the disputants to understand their feelings and figure out their own solution, often no small or easy task.
“The job of the mediator is to get the kids to understand how they feel. We can’t suggest a solution. We ask questions to lead them into their own solution. That way they can live with it,” Brennan said.
Brennan recalled a particularly challenging mediation involving two fifth- grade boys who came from families with a long history of problems. “It started with the parents and ended with the students. From day one they were taught to hate each other,” he said.
But through talking to each other with the help of the mediators, the boys were able to come to an agreement. “They decided that they wouldn’t be best of friends, but they didn’t have to hate each other,” Brennan said.
Both Brennan and Falman agree that it’s easier for the disputants to talk to mediators like themselves because they are similar in age. “They’re more receptive to sharing with us,” Falman said. “A lot of times we can relate — there’s a lot of issues that come up that we would face.”
A typical mediation is an hourlong session at the Boys & Girls Club and includes the disputants, two teen mediators and an adult monitor, who sits quietly in the background. Vicki Trabucchi, who has been a monitor since the program started, said the mediation is confidence building for everyone present.
“I think the disputants are surprised to see [the mediators] really listen to them. They look up to the mediators. To have the problem solving and the sharing, it’s an awesome thing,” she said.