By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Lilly López remembers vividly the day she became a true believer in conflict resolution training for kids. It was 1989 and López was working for the Resolving Conflicts Creatively Program (RCCP) at the Board of Education, teaching Red Hook students to mediate problems with words, not fists. She'd taken a group of her black and Latino students to a Greenpoint park, and several white youths began taunting them with racially charged comments.
"The white kids were trying to start a fight with one of my black kids," López recalled recently. She proposed that several of her students conduct a mediation. "I told the white kids this is something we use to deal with anger. They had never heard of it," López said. Her mediators laid out the ground rules: Each person tells his or her side; no name-calling or insults; and all parties agree to reach a peaceful solution. The mediators then asked the aggrieved parties in turn the basic questions: How do you feel about hearing these things? Is there another way you could have handled this? What could you do to change the situation? "Not only did they all feel better, but the white kids joined us in the park," López said.
For 17 years, the RCCP was part of the Board of Education, earning national acclaim for its success in city classrooms. No more. Last July, departing schools chancellor Harold O. Levy chopped the RCCP office and its $1.79 million budget and dispatched the eight-person staff. López was among many RCCP supporters who learned after the fact about the RCCP office's death. "If anything, the school system should have put more funds into teaching students and teachers how to deal with conflict and hostility," López said. "Now is the time."
Debra Schaller-Demers, head of RCCP's parent training, launched a lobbying campaign that restored the budget for conflict resolution programs. But the central office and staff are history. Now the money is disbursed to school districts to spend on conflict resolution programs or other things, including hiring guidance counselors. That worries RCCP supporters. "The district knows not how to administer the money," said Lorraine Jackson, an RCCP parent trainer. "We have to pray the districts do not misuse or mismanage the funds. What we need is an RCCP office."
Tom Roderick, executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility Metro Area (ESR), and co-founder of RCCP, questions the school system's commitment to conflict resolution. "The RCCP office was providing services free of charge to scores of schools. Some districts are now using the restored funds to fill budget gaps." Roderick said. "With all the cuts coming down, you can hardly blame them."
Closing the RCCP office would be cause enough for alarm. But in an ironic twist, new schools chancellor Joel Klein wants to use conflict resolution programs as a punishment, forcing misbehaving students to attend weekend or evening sessions as a sanction. On November 25, 2002, Klein announced Operation Safe Schools in response to several incidents of violence at high schools. Klein will deploy 129 more security guards and add surveillance cameras in 11 high schools. His redefinition of conflict resolution programs as punishment baffles RCCP proponents. "They are looking to use conflict resolution as a reactionary model," said Manny Verde, who was on the RCCP staff. "To take incorrigible kids and make them do conflict resolution on the weekendshow will a child who is out of control respond to that?"
Department of Education spokesperson Margie Feinberg denied that the office's elimination would hurt programs. In response to critics' concerns about the chancellor's commitment to conflict resolution programs, she read a statement from Benjamin Tucker, head of the Office of School Planning and Safety. It said in part: "It is incorrect to assume there is less emphasis on conflict resolution. Quite the contrary, these programs remain a priority.. . . These programs are not in any way punitive, but rather designed to help insure that children do not become criminalized should they commit further acts of violence."
The RCCP was created by Tom Roderick and Linda Lantieri in 1985 as an antidote to a rising tide of school violence. With its small budget and staff, the RCCP office never reached all public schools and was never mandated as part of curriculum. But in 17 years, the RCCP staff trained more than 6000 teachers, who in turn taught more than 200,000 students the principles of peaceful mediation. The curriculum, tailored for grades K through 12, teaches clear communication, listening, expressing feelings, dealing with anger, cooperation, and appreciating diversity. Peer mediation training for students and teacher coaching were also part of the mix. Debra Schaller-Demers ran workshops for parents to complement students' lessons. "I discovered over the years that they are global skills and very useful in parenting," Schaller-Demers said.
Principal Mary Buckley Teatum of P.S. 217 in Brooklyn adopted the RCCP curriculum five years ago and it has transformed the culture of her school. Buckley credits much of the success to support from Donna Connolly, an RCCP trainer until the office closed. "This is a program that can turn a school around if everyone buys into it," said Buckley. She described her Ditmas Park school as a "mini-UN" where students get along well and student mediators resolve disputes. "Children who are mediated feel so good," Buckley said. "We had children who were problematic and we've made them mediators. It changes their self-esteem."