Giving Peace a Chance: Student Peer Mediators Come to Mason to Learn and Practice New Skills

Posted: March 19, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

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From left, Maya Kapsokavadis, Christine Bancroft and Rebecca Newman facilitated a workshop with elementary school students on managing the mediation process. The three are undergraduates in Mason’s conflict resolution program.

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Things weren’t exactly quiet last week on the Fairfax Campus, but they were peaceful, thanks to the arrival of a swarm of peer mediators. The nearly 2,000 students, teachers, counselors, administrators, parents, and community volunteers from more than 125 area schools were on campus for Pathways to Peace, the 15th annual Northern Virginia Regional Student Mediation Conference.

‘A Great Tradition’

“It was terrific to see so many young people participating in the conference this year,” says Elizabeth Thompson, decompressing after two action-packed days. Thompson, of Mason’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR), sits on the conference’s steering committee and has handled the logistics of the event for five years now. Also on the steering committee are David Michael and Jen Davis of the Mason-affiliated Northern Virginia Mediation Service (NVMS.)

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“ICAR has been involved with the conference since the very beginning, and it just keeps growing,” says Thompson. “It is a great tradition and brings some students to campus that wouldn’t ordinarily get exposure to a large state university. And the fact that they are learning skills that will be with them for the rest of their lives is simply wonderful.”

Representing school systems in Northern Virginia as well as the District of Columbia, participants learned skills and strategies to reinforce the work that they do to make their schools safe and respectful learning environments, according to conference chair Marge Bleiweis, the conflict resolution specialist for the Safe and Drug Free Youth Section of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS).

Sponsored by FCPS and Mason, the conference was presented in cooperation with Arlington County Public Schools, Fairfax County Department of Family Services, Fairfax County Office of Partnerships, NVMS, and the Fairfax County Alternative Dispute Resolution Office. Several private schools also participated.

A Leadership Role for Students

On the first day of the conference, middle school peer mediators were on campus, and on the second day, the elementary schools sent their mediators. Throughout the event, peer mediators from local high schools, including West Potomac, Annandale and Westfield, performed skits that helped illustrate conflicted situations for attendees to try to resolve. The high school mediators also helped facilitate sessions.

Mason students from the undergraduate conflict analysis and resolution program were on site working as facilitators. There were also sessions for school counselors and mediation program administrators that were separate from the student sessions.

Colvin Run Elementary School in Vienna had 12 students attending — its whole peer mediation team. The group of sixth-graders was traveling with school counselors Marlene Guroff and Nathan Herendeen. Colvin Run started its program three years ago when the school first opened.

“We cover the mediation process with the entire fifth grade,” says Guroff. “They all learn the skills. Then at the end of the year, we choose peer mediators to serve during sixth grade. They are recommended for the mediation spots by their teachers and their peers. It is an honor to be chosen. It’s a real leadership role at the school.”

Guroff’s student Thomas Dungan wanted to become a peer mediator because his father had been one. “We like to swap stories,” he says. “Plus, it is very important to be good at handling conflict — for everything in life.” His classmate Connor Itani thinks being a peer mediator is good training for law school.

Mary Durgala, the counselor at Pine Spring Elementary School in Falls Church, brought the same group of students back for a second year. “They came as fourth graders to learn about the process. Now as fifth graders they are taking the upper-level workshops,” she says. “I couldn’t believe the amount of skills they brought back with them last year. They love this. They couldn’t wait to come back.”

Durgala also found it a good opportunity for her own professional development. “It is just great to have everyone in one place. I’ve been chatting with other counselors all morning, finding out how their programs are going, how many students they have involved,” she says.

Putting Theory into Practice

Maya Kapsokavadis, Christine Bancroft and Rebecca Newman, all students in Mason’s undergraduate conflict resolution program, were excited to be able to put what they are learning in the classroom to work in the field. The three facilitated a workshop with elementary school students on managing the mediation process.

“It was a great experience,” says Bancroft. “I was eager to see how they interacted.”

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Annandale High School peer mediators answer questions after an improv skit.
Photos by Nicolas Tan

For Newman, working with the conference was a part of an internship. “One of the things I am trying to do [in this internship] is build a relationship between Mason students and the peer mediation programs,” she says. “We would like to get a mentorship program in place. It is great to practice and build the [school mediation] community.”

Newman had already approached some of the mediators from Robinson Secondary School with some of her ideas. “They seemed very interested,” she says.

Thompson says the undergraduate conflict resolution degree program, offered jointly by ICAR and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, is also growing rapidly. Just a few years in existence, the program expects to graduate eight students in May.

ICAR, which also has a master’s degree, a PhD, and a number of certificate programs, was one of the first schools in the country to offer a degree program in conflict resolution.

“Mason is a tremendous resource in this field,” says Thompson. “We have something for anyone who is looking to learn mediation skills.”

As for why they do it, sixth-grader Jose Richardson of Colvin Run said it best: “I like the feeling I get when I help people. It makes me feel good.”

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