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PEER-ING into problems

Students at Robinson Challenge resolve their own problems through peer mediation and mock arguments taped for other students to view.

Students at Robinson Challenge School in Clearwater are proof that some theatrics can go a long way toward solving disputes between young classmates.

Under the watchful eye of full-time school psychologist Dr. Jeanne Howes and guidance counselor Carol Bouffard, children are being trained to act out problems and practice conflict management, a process known as "peer mediation," in front of the school's video cameras.

The videotaped sessions are shown to other students as examples of how to successfully settle disputes.

The result has been that children who get into tussles at Robinson Challenge are not always sent to principal Randy Rozelle's office for disciplinary action. Instead, some conflicts are subjected to the peer mediation process, in which kids take responsibility and handle their own problems.

Robinson Challenge is a school for grades 4-5, one of four public schools in Pinellas County designated exclusively for students the system considers to be at risk of dropping out of school in the future. Like Robinson, St. Petersburg Challenge serves grades 4-5, while Clearwater Discovery and Lealman Discovery in St. Petersburg serve grades 6-9.

Failing grades, low academic test scores, lack of family support, frequent tardiness, absenteeism and trauma _ such as a parent being sent to prison _ are some of the reasons children are referred to these programs from other public schools.

During a recent peer meditation training session, two "feuding" fifth-graders, Stephanie Eleyet and Rodrica Dixon, sat down at a round table together.

Joining them at the "peace table" was trained mediator John Swan and mediator-in-training Cortez Hearns, both 11.

The scripted scenario was that Stephanie had built a wooden sailboat as a science project. She had admonished her classmates to look at the sailboat but not to touch it.

Rodrica played the role of the violator. She said she was admiring the boat and picked it up. Stephanie grabbed her boat back, and one of the little sails ended up broken.

"I felt really mad," Stephanie said as she sat at the table. "I yanked it away from her, started a big fight and called her "stupid.' "

The two young mediators, Cortez and John, laid out ground rules for all scenario participants. They used materials published by the Peace Education Foundation co-founded in 1980 by Fran Schmidt, former coordinator of Dade County's conflict resolution and peer mediation programs.

Mediators were not there to take sides or be judges. It is was not their job to punish Stephanie or Rodrica or tell them what to do. The two girls did have to agree with the rules established for any mediation: Listen without interrupting. No name calling. Agree to solve the problem. Take responsibility for carrying out your end of the agreement. Tell the truth.

Both girls acted out their version of what happened. At one point, John admonished them to "stop blaming." The next step was for Stephanie and Rodrica to offer solutions to solve the problem.

The girls decided to fix the boat together. Rodrica apologized to Stephanie and agreed to ask before touching. Stephanie agreed to try not to jump to conclusions. Both girls signed the agreement.

"I just like helping people sort out their problems," said John. "I had a problem with a friend. Peer mediation tried to help us. I want to help people like they helped me."

While the two-girls-and-a-boat scenario was scripted for training purposes, guidance counselor Bouffard said the conflict management process is used at the school almost daily. At least two mediators are trained for each fourth- and fifth-grade class.

Her log of actual recent peer mediation sessions included the issue of a child who put pressure on another child to do his work. A student pinched another student. There were incidents of name-calling and excessive teasing.

Peer mediation helps children learn peaceful ways to solve their problems because they are influenced by their peers, said principal Rozelle, allowing that peer mediation is for everyday relationship issues between children.

"It's not for severe disruptions such as fighting and defiance," Rozelle said.