Education

Peace conference leads to start of public-school peer mediation group

From left, students Richard Bethel, 17, Sebastian Lorenzo, 15, Edgar Otero,17, and Juan Brown, 17, with Priscilla Dames, Wingspan Seminar president and founder, and Norby Rudel, program coordinator for the Rotary Club of Miami's annual peace conference, during a training session to implement a peer mediation program at the Young Men's Preparatory Academy in Miami on Thursday, April 23, 2015.
From left, students Richard Bethel, 17, Sebastian Lorenzo, 15, Edgar Otero,17, and Juan Brown, 17, with Priscilla Dames, Wingspan Seminar president and founder, and Norby Rudel, program coordinator for the Rotary Club of Miami's annual peace conference, during a training session to implement a peer mediation program at the Young Men's Preparatory Academy in Miami on Thursday, April 23, 2015. El Nuevo Herald

Sebastian Lorenzo, 15, had never heard of peer mediation before.

But when the idea — problem solving by students with other students — was presented to him at a peace conference, he thought it could help at his all-boy school in Miami.

“There’s a lot of kids in my school that can use it,” Lorenzo, a sophomore, said of his 6th- through 12th-grade public school, Young Men’s Preparatory Academy in Miami. “Especially because our school is an all-male school, we tend to have a lot of bullying. It has to do with pride and who’s the bigger guy and who’s better overall.”

Of the approximately 220 boys at Young Men’s Preparatory Academy — many have seen verbal or physical fights, heard belittling comments directed toward their peers, or been victims of bullying.

“Young Men’s Prep serves some pretty troubled neighborhoods,” said Norby Rudel, the program coordinator for the Rotary Club of Miami’s annual peace conference. “Some of the kids have come from some bad neighborhoods and have had trouble at the previous schools they’ve attended.”

While physical fights aren’t typical Young Men’s Prep, teasing can often be a problem. Many times verbal conflicts break out between upper classmen and middle schoolers on the issue of respect.

To help foster peace on their campus, Sebastian and four friends — Justin Brown, Edgar Otero, Richard Bethal, and Jerry Arboite — created a peer mediation program. They learned of the concept while attending an all-day workshop on bullying, hosted in January by the Rotary Club of Miami.

The peace conference featured two LGBT anti-bullying speakers — Jowharah Sanders, founder and executive director of National Voices for Equality, Education and Enlightenment (NVEEE), and Joseph Zolobczuk, director of education and research for the YES Institute — who spoke about their experiences being bullied in high school.

“It really is the only way to promote peace,” Lorenzo said of the project. “For the kids that aren’t okay with [teasing] and it actually hurts them, that’s part of what this is for.”

Lorenzo’s hope is that the peer mediation process can help replace the need for staff to hand out detentions and conduct referrals.

“I want the settle the differences we can within the school,” Lorenzo said.

Since the conference ended, the four have ramped up their efforts to make their brainchild a reality with the assistance of their school’s student rotary club advisor, Andre Gainey.

“I think it’s great. It’s a skill and a strategy more than anything,” Gainey said. “Problems in school are part of growing up. Conflict mediation gives you a set of skills to address those problems.”

As Gainey and the boys figure out how to make the program work on campus, Rudel has brought outside support to help launch the idea. Rudel, trained in conflict resolution, has wanted to start up a pilot mediation program since 2012 when the Miami Rotary Club first began its peace conference.

“Peer mediation groups have shown nation wide that they’re actually starting to work and get positive results,” Rudel said. “If there’s a conflict at school, usually there’s not too many alternatives. It’s usually a meeting with administration. The beauty of peer mediation is that the kids start to mediate conflict amongst themselves.”

Even though a full-fledged mediation program has yet to be revealed to the school’s student population, YMPA administration can see promise on the horizon.

“This program is definitely going to be beneficial to our students because it may cause our students to open up a little bit more in terms of them having issues with one another,” said YMPA’s Principal Pierre Edouard.

In more recent weeks, Rudel has teamed up with Priscilla Dames, a local expert on conflict prevention and resolution, to help provide five 100-minute peer mediation training sessions to the team.

Dames, president and CEO of consulting company Wingspan Seminars, has over 20 years integrating peer mediation into different workplaces and various schools around the county.

The first session, which began this week, focused on self-awareness, trust, and the basics of mediation. The students also worked on a name for the project, which has yet to be announced.

Future sessions, which will be held in the upcoming weeks, will detail types of power communication (non-verbal versus verbal communication and active listening); emotional intelligence; the process of peer mediation and how to implement the program (logistics, marketing and keeping it all going).

“Teaching the children those basic problem solving skills, mediation and how to implement that through a process with your peers to keep them out of trouble and escalating that conflict – it does work,” Dames said. “Youth tend to listen to other youth much more so than adults and parents even.”

Of the program’s outcome, Dames said: “The students have to agree to the process of peer mediation before it can work.”

“If there is no agreement through the process, than the mediation does not even begin,” Dames said. “If the peoples that are in conflict do not want some type of resolution they will continue that conflict. The more children understand the process of mediation and buy into it; [the more] it lessens the conflict in the school.”

Since the program initiative has launched, some students have already put their newly learned skills to work.

A few weeks ago, one of Gainey’s sixth-grade students shoved another kid into the pencil sharpener. Gainey called Lorenzo in to mediate.

“I went in there and let them both talk individually,” Lorenzo said. “I told them not to worry because they weren’t going to get into trouble. Then the kid confessed he pushed him first and that’s what started everything.”

It worked.

Young Men’s Preparatory plans to launch the program for the entire school this fall.

“It’s going to be a long haul before we make a change, but I know that next year we’ll be able to have more peer mediation,” Lorenzo said, adding that he’s already made plans to grow the program. “We want to expand, eventually, to try to build this in other schools.”

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