Mediator Mentors and the Bigger Picture of Restorative Justice in Our Schools

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Restorative Justice at Civic Summer by Daniel X. O’Neil via Flickr Creative Commons

By Amanda Tripp

“One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world” -Malala Yousafzai

In recent years we have become frustrated and even outraged by traditional methods of punishment at our public schools. We have become fed up with student push-out and have spoken out against willful defiance expulsions. We want a school system that encourages the youth of our communities to feel safe and gives them the ability to learn and thrive. Most folks will agree that this will not be achieved by turning our public schools into extensions of the criminal justice system. With the Fresno Unified School Board voting to give half a million dollars from their Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) allocated money to fund the police, we have to wonder if our schools are for education anymore.

Recently, I have come across a program that is giving some power back to the students via a peer mediation program. The Mediator Mentors Program is a partnership between Fresno State and participating K-12 public schools. Participating Fresno State Students partner with K-12 schools in the Valley to train and guide in the implementation of peer mediation programs among the younger students. They have teamed up with 100 schools across eight school districts. It is a class project for the Fresno State students to assist in training and coaching of the students, who volunteer their lunch time to mediate disputes for their peers. Teachers and school officials who wish to participate in the program are also given training in Conflict Resolution to effectively help manage the program. It gives both students and teachers at these K-12 schools a new set of tools for handling conflicts and disputes.

Originally under the Kerman School of Education and Human Development, beginning in January of 2016, Mediator Mentors has become part of the Peace and Conflict Studies in the Department of Philosophy at CSUF and is currently being directed by Dr. Negin Tahvildary. Like many organizations we know and love, Mediator Mentors is finding it difficult to recruit new leadership. With the transition from the School of Education, they are hoping to appeal to a broader professional base as Conflict Resolution applies to other professions such as lawyers and counselors. And of course, like other organizations we value, there are funding issues.

Last semester, in the middle of the project, Fresno Unified notified Mediator Mentors that all the Fresno State Students who were working on Fresno Unified campuses needed to be fingerprinted. This unexpected $50 expense led to many of the college students opting out of the project. Dr. Tahcildary explains she went from having over 20 students working on this project to just seven. Although $50 a student is not a whole lot of money, it was not in the budget for Mediator Mentors and was a heart-breaking reality for those involved. It is even more heart-breaking this prevented what would have been a positive impact on K-12 students in our communities because the Fresno State Students were not able to fulfill the training and coaching of their young volunteers. Mediator Mentors is working to obtain grants and hold fundraising events to ensure bumps in the roads like this won’t lead to scaling back of the program in the future.

Dr. Tahcildary is dedicated to giving this program the direction it deserves as she sees the profound effects that teaching Conflict Resolution can have on the future of young children. Dr. Tahcildary has unique insight on the importance of Conflict Resolution. Growing up in war-torn Iran, as a young girl, she recalls not being able to sleep in her own bed but rather having to go to a shelter at night because of the increasing threat of bombings near her home. She recalls one night her mom told her that they would finally be able to sleep in their own beds because the United Nations was holding Peace Talks. Negin was only 8 years old, she did not know what the U.N. was but she was extremely grateful to them for giving her the ability to stay safely in her home and giving her a sense of security. It is this incident that led her to want to work for the United Nations and help children. She fulfilled this dream, as she worked for the United Nations Assistant Mission to Afghanistan, helping displaced Afghani children receive schooling while living as refugees. She sees Mediator Mentors as an avenue to fulfill her mission to help children via peace. She and the Mediator Mentors Program is not alone in this aim.

Conflict Resolution programs are gaining traction as the profession is a growing career choice. In the criminal justice realm, we have seen within the last few years both Madera County and Kings County implement a Restorative Justice Programs for their juvenile criminal offenders. The Victim Offender Reconciliation Program has been mediating Juvenile Criminal cases for over 30 years in Fresno County and has been the model for similar programs across the globe.

Programs like these allow for alternatives to what is viewed as traditional criminal justice; crime and punishment. They boast that the restorative justice approach gives the victim the ability to tell their side and feel heard in a manner that in not seen in our courtrooms. Restorative justice programs that are being utilized by our juvenile criminal justice systems are reporting lower rates of recidivism, criminals are less likely to offend again after participating in these programs. These programs are catching on because they work and are more cost effective than the traditional approaches of courtrooms and jail cells.

By introducing Conflict Resolution via peer mediation programs in our schools, like the Mediator Mentors Program, we are giving our young people the ability to resolve issues among themselves and not leaving it to an adult to decide the outcome. It is empowering youth and teaching them an alternative to traditional methods of punishment. Leading students to become invested in their schools in a different manner than they previously have, Conflict Resolution increases young people’s sense of belonging and community.

Programs like these, enhance student’s social and emotional development and create a safe learning environment. In a small study conducted in 2011, of the schools that were participating in the Meditator Mentor Program, students who participated in the program showed an increase in their dispositional empathy, and their understanding of others’ mental state, emotions and feelings. Most notably, students’ feeling that they “belonged” at their schools increased after having Mediator Mentors implemented.

There is no doubt we are only beginning to see the impact of what Mediator Mentors and other Conflict Resolution programs are doing for youth. A generation of children can see that there are other methods to achieve justice, in fact, there are some that actually yield better results. This won’t fix the fact that we live in a society where it is the norm to have police officers on school campuses, it won’t end the pushing out of minority students. But it is an alternative to what we are currently doing and it is making a difference to the 7,500 teachers and students that have participated in Mediator Mentors so far. Do I think that this program will end the school to prison pipeline? No, but I think raising the next generation to view themselves, each other, and justice differently, will.

For questions and more information about the Mediator Mentors Program please contact Dr. Negin Tahvildary at negin@csufresno.edu

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Amanda Tripp is a Fresno citizen engaged in criminal justice reform and a member of Community Alliance editorial board. You may contact her at AmandaNTripp@yahoo.com.