Jose Mendoza, left, plays the part of a student having a dispute with another student during a mock peer mediation session at McLoughlin Middle School, while his mediator, Adam Case, listens. The eighth-graders have been training to be peer mediators at McLoughlin. - Jim Craven

Student mediators work to restore the peace

Infuriated that he hurt his leg when another student tripped him on a staircase as they were evacuating McLoughlin Middle School during a fire drill, the injured eighth-grader threatened to beat up his classmate.

An argument ensued, and the boys were referred to peer mediators, fellow eighth-graders Molly Pritchard and Adam Case, who are trained by Mediation Works, a nonprofit community dispute-resolution center in Medford. With skill and confidence, they negotiate peace settlements between fuming adolescents.

"It was obvious it wasn't on purpose," said eighth-grader Greg Rapet, another peer mediator who plays the role of one of the disputants in the mock scenario. "I want an apology."

Molly and Adam acknowledged how each boy must have felt in the situation and then, asked what each could do to resolve the conflict.

"We could pretend like it never happened, and everything could be the same as before when we didn't even know each other," said peer mediator Jose Mendoza, who plays the role of the boy who was tripped.

Greg agrees to the suggestion, and Molly and Adam draw up an agreement for the boys to sign in which they set a time line for apologizing and restoring the peace.

McLoughlin is one of more than a dozen schools in Jackson County that offer their students peer-mediation programs to resolve conflicts on their own before they reach a level requiring discipline by an administrator.

Ashland's Walker Elementary School this fall will offer the county's newest peer-mediation program, which has expanded slowly over the past dozen years.

The immediate benefit of the programs is the resolution of conflicts that can disturb a school's educational environment, but participation in the programs also can build lifelong skills, said Joseph Schulz, Mediation Works school programs director.

"It's an opportunity for empowerment to come up with the answer instead of someone else coming up with the solution for you," Schulz said.

Mediation Works provides most of the student training, which ranges from seven to 10 hours over the course of several days.

The mediations are confidential, and in secondary schools, often secluded from the view of adults, though peer mediators are required to report any illegal activities such as drug use, weapon possession or sexual harassment.

The process builds confidence in students and problem-solving skills, both for the mediators and the disputants because mediators ask the disputants to suggest solutions until negotiations lead to an agreement on how to settle the conflict.

The programs also provide a taste of a career field that is growing in scope and demand, said Jon Lange, a mediator, organizational consultant and communication professor at Southern Oregon University in Ashland.

"Conflict resolution is one of the fastest-growing fields in the country," Lange said. "There are master's degrees in conflict resolution popping up all over the country and even a couple of PhD programs. There are books on careers in mediation and conflict resolution. There are jobs in environmental conflict, organizational conflict and health care, and that's just the tip of the iceberg."

School-based peer-mediation programs have been around for decades in other places, but didn't arrive in Jackson County until about 12 years ago. The programs are common at secondary schools but have made headway into elementary schools.

Five years ago, Medford's Jefferson Elementary School became the first elementary school in Jackson County to start a peer-mediation program.

Fifth and sixth-graders who are nominated by teachers and apply for the mediator positions perform between 20 and 50 peer mediations each year, said Pam Bullard, Jefferson peer mediation coordinator.

"It's a great way to help students start to learn how to work things out by discussing their problems," Bullard said.

Medford's Abraham Lincoln Elementary School also has a program.

Students can become peer mediators in elementary school and depending on what district they attend, continue in the programs through high school. McLoughlin, Hedrick and Talent middle schools and Phoenix, North Medford and Rogue River high schools operate such programs.

Phoenix High School, the most extensive peer-mediation program in the county, has even expanded its program to offer up to four college credits from SOU for peer mediators who demonstrate college-level skills in the form of an essay about resolving conflict, said John Cornet, peer mediation coordinator and social studies teacher.

The high school's peer-mediator training is extensive, ranging from workshops on confidentiality to psychological and sociological reasons for conflict. About 20 students have completed the required 16 hours of training and are eligible to perform peer mediations at the school. More than another 60 students are in training.

Students could go on to SOU to take classes in conflict resolution and negotiation or earn a certificate in mediation and conflict management from SOU or Mediation Works. The University of Oregon in Eugene and Portland State University now offer master's degrees in conflict resolution.

Phoenix High senior Dan Elsmore, who is a peer mediator, earned SOU credit last year for an essay he wrote about ethnic conflicts in the southeastern European nation of Serbia.

"It really prepares you for your future," Elsmore said, "in that you are always working with people you don't get along with, but you can find common ground and put your differences behind you."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or

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