Leap of Faith: Leveraging Teen Mediation

Give kids control to mediate an unarmed robbery? “I thought, are you crazy? Isn’t that what got them into trouble in the first place?”

Then Det. Vanessa Cruz of the MBTA Transit Police Department was told that she would have to leave the room during the mediation and that what happened inside the room would be confidential—except for the agreement between the parties.

“To say I was skeptical is an understatement,” she remembers.

A boy had snatched a cell phone out of a woman’s bag on the city subway system Det. Cruz polices. The woman screamed and feebly gave chase.  The boy ran out of the subway car and into a subway inspector who held him until the police came. Upon interviewing the boy, the police, in agreement with the victim and his parents, offered him mediation or court. The boy chose mediation.

“This is usually where it gets tough,” said Cruz. “Most people don’t want to face their victims and in mediation you must face up to the consequences of what you’ve done—sometimes more than you do in court,” explains Cruz. “Often kids will beg me not to have to go into the room with their victim. They tell me they’ll do anything but that. And then when the mediation is over, a lot of them thank me for having given them the opportunity to have mediation. “

In this case, two peer mediators trained by Chandra Banks of the Cambridge Public Schools came from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School to do their magic. The woman who had been robbed explained that she was returning from chemotherapy treatment the day the boy robbed her. She also explained that she had recently lost her job. The 15 year old boy came out of the room in tears and continued apologizing to the woman, the mediators, and the police officers—vowing never to do it again.

“It’s transformative,” says Banks, who has run this program for the last 5 years. “About 95% of our mediations end in an agreement, and about 92% of those agreements hold and there are no further problems. And that’s not unusually high, those statistics are typical of mediation efforts nationally and internationally.”

“This was the perfect kind of case for mediation,” says Detective Vanessa Cruz, with the MBTA Transit Police.  “The boy seemed to be doing it just to do it. There was no strong motive.” And in this case, the boy’s school record was good, this was his first, senseless incident. “We didn’t want to ruin his life with a record.”

Mediation is much better than court in certain situations, says Cruz. “In court there’s not always time to understand the motives of the behavior. And kids don’t have to take responsibility and be accountable the way they have to in a mediation.

The key function of mediation is to understand things from another perspective and provoke self reflection about one’s own behavior. And it works. The fact that their peers, instead of an adult, are telling them that they have broken a rule is more powerful and less easy to shrug off.

Lt. Detective Mark Gillespie of the MBTA Transit Police agrees and is increasing the Department’s use of this approach. “Not all cases are fit for mediation. If we confer with the victim, and the DA’s office, we can help reduce the burden on the courts. This approach is personal and emotional. The kids feel it more and they conform to these rules that they imposed on themselves.”

Why Does Teen Mediation Work with Teens?

It’s no surprise that teens want to exercise control and flex their emotional and political muscles. What is surprising is how they rise to the occasion when given the opportunity—and when adults are not in the room.  Instead of a Lord of the Flies scenario, the Kids are Alright—on their own.

“When they’re in a room with other kids, it’s different. They have to step it up,” explained Banks. “They don’t want to look weak or that they can’t participate; they have to be self-directed.”

Without the adult in the room, they must take that responsibility themselves and with the mediation training and methods, the experience leads the vast majority of youth to take responsibility for their conduct and explain it.

“It lifts their self-esteem because it shows them they have all the tools they need to solve their own problems—if you slow down and think about it,” explained Banks. “When an adult is in the room, they expect the adult to do the work.”

For many youth, mediation serves as translator—helping to explain themselves to themselves, and explain others of the increasingly diverse community in which they live, to each other.

In America today, you can’t really assume anyone know how to behave, observed Banks. Kids don’t believe they an be respected. Too many have not been respected, just exploited. This process gives them a different view of themselves and of conflict.

Elisa Miranda, a junior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School who speaks Spanish, Portuegse and Haitian Creole, gave examples of mediation serving to help youth communicate better with each other.

“I had to go to a mediation because of fighting and that’s what made me want to be a mediator. I was fighting over something that made no sense and when we had the mediation I realized it was not worth it and that if we’d talked about it, we wouldn’t have gotten to that point. But back then, I was like a lot of kids—I didn’t know how to explain myself or my feelings and mediation helped,” she said.

Elisa noted that mediation is also helpful for dealing with teacher/student problems when they have misconceptions about each other. She has seen that getting them to sit together and share their points of view is helpful.

Alice Nakibuuka, a senior at the high school, and a mediator since 7th grade said that  mediation is especially good at working out disputes among teens. “Teens say it straight,” she explained. “But if there are adults there, a lot of teens feel that the adults won’t listen and will just assert their authority so there’s no point in participating.”

Alice thinks mediation is a great form of violence prevention and intervention. “It’s better to resolve the problem because when teens start fighting, it’s hard to get them to start talking and then more kids get involved and it gets out of control.” She noted that Cambridge H.S. is calmer than a lot of other high schools in the area and she attributes it to the use of mediation. “We don’t have fights or the police here all the time,” she observed.

The written agreements that result from the mediations help structure the parties’ behavior going forward and gives a roadmap—and a reminder—to success.

Elements of A Mediation Program

As Banks walked into the high school last Friday, three deans of students met her with requests that she take on new cases. They said they had exhausted their efforts with the youth and needed a new approach.

“The mediation approach is key to building community—while empowering youth to take control of their community,” said Jamal Prince, Dean of Students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, who says the use of mediation has reduced school suspensions and arrests in the last 5 years. “It’s restorative, not punitive, and incredibly effective,”

The five key principles of mediation are:

  1. All participants are there voluntarily and there are no consequences if they choose to end a mediation;
  2.  The mediation is confidential; no one may speak about what is disclosed about during the mediation;
  3. Non-judgment; mediations aim to avoid name calling and labeling and focus instead on win-win agreements for future interactions;
  4. Self-Directed; mediators are in charge of helping those who are mediated solve their own problems;
  5. Future-focused; emphasis is on interactions going forward instead of harping on the past.

All mediators must be trained. Chandra Banks screens cases for mediation and excludes most cases dealing with bullying as power differentials make mediation ineffective. However, successful mediations between parents and their children have been achieved. In the case of a brawl, each of 10 students was invited to do a mediation in which they’d have to face a member of the school community—their favorite teacher—to explain their behavior.

“The teachers all came in and made conditions with these kids,” Banks explained, still amazed at how effective it was. “The teachers invited each youth to connect to them and keep the lines of communication open. Teachers want this because it’s more effective than suspension and detention; sending kids away from education makes no sense.”

Banks has rewarded the high school’s most seasoned mediators, i.e. they’ve mediated some of the most challenging conflicts, in the school context by introducing them to the MBTA Transit Police Department.

“The police can’t be everywhere,” said Lieutenant Detective Gillespie. “In certain situations, which are carefully screened, we have resorted to mediation. We think using kids’ mistakes as teachable moments helps them learn how to respect others and understand the consequences of their behaviors—without a juvenile record that’ll impact and limit their future. We think with certain cases mediation is a great way for kids to move forward constructively.”

For more information on this mediation program, contact:

Chandra Banks, Conflict Mediator
Cambridge Public School District

Det. Vanessa Cruz

Lt. Det. Mark Gillespie

For more information on developing mediation programs, visit: www.mediate.com