DIANE MAKAR MURPHY Student mediator makes the most of bad situations
It's summer break for Evangelina Figueroa after a very good sixth-grade year at Sheridan Elementary School. And a good year for many of her classmates because of her.
Evangelina, 12, was honored, in this her last year at Sheridan, by the Ohio Senate for outstanding achievement as a peer mediator -- a person who puts an end to violence before it starts.
As a mediator in both fifth and sixth grades, Evangelina negotiated peace more than 50 times. Using a process she learned during voluntary training sessions, she helped pupils find resolutions that didn't involve shouting, fists or weapons. Evangelina, an honor-roll student, also trained instructors and pupils to use the mediation procedure.
"When I was nominated to be a mediator last year," Evangelina said, "I didn't know what it was. But they told us it was about peace, and I liked that."
In Evangelina's family, "touching somebody" is not allowed. "My mom tells me to just tell the teacher if I have a problem," she said.
"That's not the case for all the families here at Sheridan," said Marcia Ellis, school counselor. "Many students have been told that if someone hits them, to hit back."
Expanding effort: Ellis spearheaded the peer mediation program at Sheridan and has hopes to extend the mediator training to the fourth grade next year. This last year, the school had 18 fifth- and sixth-grade mediators who resolved 175 conflicts since September. Also, some classrooms had peace corners -- places to "cool down" when tempers flared.
Obviously, in the back of everyone's minds is preventing a violent outbreak like that at Columbine. "I don't know why that happened," Evangelina said. "Someone should have told. I think a mediator and counseling might have helped. We went over it in our mediation group."
Identifying potential conflicts to adults often puts the heat on Evangelina. "Kids get mad," she said, "but I tell anyway. Later, they thank me."
Ellis added, "Her peers respect her. We just took a trip to Cedar Point, and everyone was trying to be with her." According to Ellis, a mediation usually ends with the participants hugging.
"But we can't solve all the problems," Evangelina said. "Some people just aren't mediation people."
How it works: The process begins with identifying pupils in conflict and giving them the option of mediation or the principal's office. Most choose mediation, according to Evangelina. Introductions are made and the mediator explains ground rules for listening and behavior.
Each pupil then tells the mediator his or her story. Next, parties share their feelings.
"People don't like telling their feelings," Evangelina said, noting one stumbling block. "They'll say something like, 'I feel normal.' I say, 'Normal won't do it. I need a feeling word.'"
Next, the children brainstorm possible solutions, finally selecting one and writing it down. At the end, parties sign a contract. The mediation is handled entirely by pupils who keep the proceeding confidential.
"The mediation I remember the most was between a first- and second-grader. It was over a pencil and a quarter," Evangelina said with a smile. "At the end, they gave each other a hug AND a kiss."
Such success has led Ellis to send the more difficult cases to Evangelina.
Mediator training will likely change her future. Though she said using it at home is unnecessary ("They're all wonderful"), she does expect to use it after college. Since mediating, she said, "I'd like to be a lawyer."
We can't know the level of violence Evangelina and the other mediators may have prevented, but it's certain parents of Sheridan pupils were a little more comfortable because of their efforts.