Jewish World Review Dec. 24, 2001 / 9 Teves, 5762

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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The littlest peacemakers -- THIS is a good-news column, but let's begin with some recent examples of the other kind:

In New Bedford, Mass., five high school students are arrested in a conspiracy to slaughter students and teachers. In San Jose, 19-year-old Al DeGuzman scripts a meticulous plan for mass murder at a nearby community college. In Buffalo, two boys are charged with plotting a school shooting at Eden High School. They intended to attack on the second anniversary of the Columbine massacre.

In Elmira, N.Y., Jeremy Gutman is sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison for smuggling a duffel bag full of bombs and guns into his school. In Fort Collins, Col., two boys plead guilty to planning an assault at Preston Junior High School. They were going to murder 10 seventh-graders and then commit suicide.

There is no shortage, it would seem, of angry, vengeful, violent students in the nation's public schools. We would have to know more about the background and upbringing of these students to really make sense of their homicidal rages. But it's safe to assume that few of them would have been so tempted by violence if they had learned other ways of dealing with conflict or resolving disputes.

Which brings me to the good news: In more and more schools nationwide, children are learning how to bring quarreling fellow students to peace. These programs are known formally as "peer mediation," and at the Kennedy Elementary School in Brockton, Mass., four fifth-graders are showing me how it works.

Jazmine and Alex are having a fight, and they have agreed to let Chrishian and Joshua -- two of the school's 25 student mediators -- help them settle their dispute.

Chrishian lays down the ground rules.

"We don't take sides," she begins, "or tell you what to do. We're here to help you figure that out for yourselves. Each of you will get a chance to tell your side of the story. You need to listen to each other without interrupting, and with no name-calling or fighting. Do you agree?"

Jazmine and Alex agree, then take turns laying out their grievances as Joshua takes notes. Jazmine says that she borrowed Alex's video game, but when she got it home, the picture was fuzzed and unclear. So she replaced it with a new one before returning it. When Alex saw her in the hallway the next day, he shoved her down for no reason.

Alex interrupts with an insult, but Joshua brings him up sharply: "No interrupting or name-calling, remember? You agreed."

After Jazmine has had her say, it's Alex's turn. But first Chrishian has him restate Jazmine's complaint. Only after he demonstrates that he understands her side of the dispute is he allowed to tell his side.

"I let her use my game because I thought I could trust her," he says. "But when she gave it back, all my files were gone. I thought she erased them, so the next day, I pushed her and her books fell." He seems a bit sheepish, now that he knows what really happened. When he's done, Jazmine repeats his version.

"Are you guys ready to solve this?" ask Chrishian. They say they are. She asks for ideas.

Sarcastically, Jazmine suggests that Alex could move to a different city. But then she gets serious. "He could apologize. And I guess we could be more honest." Alex agrees. A few moments later, Joshua lays a written "mediation agreement form" on the table before them. On it he has printed their names, a summary of the conflict, and the resolution they have agreed to. All four students sign it, and Jazmine and Alex are told it is now their responsibility to stick to their "contract." End of mediation. End of fight.

In truth, all four of these students are mediators. They have been simulating a mediation to give me a sense of what they are like. I realize that not every dispute is resolved so easily, that not every agreement is lived up to, and that there are plenty of fights that are never submitted to mediation in the first place.

But what strikes me so forcefully is how mature these kids are and the dignity with which they handle themselves. I have to remind myself that these civilized people, who have committed themselves to the principle that disputes can be settled through reasoned communication, are 10 years old. To see children so young giving up free time and taking on added responsibilities in order to help end fights and repair ruptured friendships is heartening beyond words. If all children knew what these children know -- that most conflicts can be defused if the parties will give each other a respectful hearing and work together on fashioning a resolution -- human society would be transformed.

Peer mediation is already established in many junior and senior high schools, but Brockton is one of the comparatively few cities to try it at the elementary level. The results have been everything administrators hoped for. Children are learning to resolve their quarrels themselves, principals are able to concentrate on more serious problems, and teachers spend more time teaching instead of refereeing.

"Seek peace and pursue it," the Psalmist urges. In Brockton, Mass., even children are learning to take those words to heart. Blessed are these little peacemakers. May their tribe increase.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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