Task force seeks return of peer mediation in schools

Thursday, Nov. 3, 2005

Upper Marlboro residents Bruce and Janet Eberhardt help resolve residents' disputes on behalf of the Prince George's County government and hope to extend the conflict-resolution effort to county middle schools.

Peer mediation – a program in which students receive special training from qualified teachers to solve disputes between students before disciplinary action becomes necessary – already exists in county high schools, but peer mediation teachers were removed from middle schools about two years ago.

Janet Eberhardt, 74, said the program allows students to see the benefit of resolving conflicts before they erupt into physical or verbal altercations and can teach them how to better respond to personal difficulties.

‘‘They’re learning to manage conflict,” she said. ‘‘And they’re learning to model how to deal with problems.”

The Eberhardts, employees of the county’s Office of Community Relations, are part of a countywide task force – the Youth Conflict Resolution Task Force – seeking the return of peer mediation.

The task force is working on a proposal to advocate for more peer mediation teachers and resources in schools. The report is expected to come before the school board in mid-December.

The program had to be cut back in 2003 due to the budget deficit, school officials told The Gazette.

Beatrice Tignor, school board chairwoman, said the board would likely include peer mediation in the upcoming fiscal 2007 budget.

‘‘I believe it’s the board’s intention to include it as a budget item,” Tignor said. ‘‘Peer mediation is high on our list of priorities.”

Kathleen Kurtz, assistant superintendent for schools in Region 4 – an area encompassing much of southern Prince George's – said the program is a good idea but getting funding for specially trained peer-mediation teachers could be a problem.

‘‘Having that one adult who’s responsible for monitoring the peer mediators is important,” she said. ‘‘The whole school system is receptive to the idea, but the concern is with the budget.”

Each mediation program is controlled at the individual school level.

The schools system is currently formulating its budget for fiscal 2007 and the challenge will be to find the money to hire and assign those teachers in each school, Kurtz said.

Howard Banks, a peer mediation coordinator at Central High School in Capitol Heights who was also once a regional mediation coordinator, said part of the problem in the past was overspending in the program, which made matters worse during the deficit.

‘‘We were in the red,” Banks said. ‘‘We had overspent our budget.”

Despite the funding questions, the Eberhardts said principals and teachers are supportive.

‘‘It makes a big difference,” Bruce Eberhardt said. ‘‘Teachers with mediation skills can go down and mediate a problem but that’s an adult with authority so it’s not really mediation.”

Peer mediation, Eberhardt said, can have lasting effects on resolving problems between students because adults allow children to work out their own problems.

Kurtz said there is no shortage of students willing to participate in the program.

‘‘Students take it very seriously,” Kurtz said. ‘‘They are outstanding in finding new solutions to different problems.”

Caryle Victor, mediation and conflict program coordinator for the Office of Community Relations and head of the task force, said a report on peer mediation and its effectiveness is still in the works but that the program would be worthwhile if it made a comeback into the school system.

‘‘I think it’s immensely important,” Victor said. ‘‘They’re empowered to resolve conflicts and make choices in their lives, which is a skill we as adults don’t often have.”

Although Bruce Eberhardt is currently focused on returning the program to middle schools, he believes the best goal is to get peer mediation in elementary schools so that children can learn to deal with conflict constructively at a younger age.

‘‘By the time we get them in middle school, their habits on how they deal with problems and people are already formed,” he said.

E-mail Guy Leonard at gleonard@gazette.net.