Peace Nix

How the Schools Conflict Resolution Office Got Mugged

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 weekends—how 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."

Principals like Buckley are brimming with stories about how the RCCP curriculum creates a safe learning environment and reduces lunchroom free-for-alls. While the city has never studied the impact of conflict resolution programs on school violence, one study shows that RCCP improves students' academic performance and raises those all-important test scores. In a 1999 evaluation of RCCP, Dr. Lawrence Aber of Columbia University's National Center for Children in Poverty found that the more conflict resolution lessons students received the less aggressive behavior they exhibited and the higher they scored on standardized tests. "New York historically has been a leader in addressing children's emotional and social needs. So cutting the RCCP program flies in face of evidence," said Dr. Aber.

The end of the RCCP office has already affected programs in schools. "Normally, RCCP is chugging away by now," said Lorraine Jackson. "People would normally make schedules for us in October." Jackson worked in six Brooklyn school districts last year, training guidance counselors and family workers for RCCP. But now district administrators won't tell her how they plan to spend their RCCP funding. "If the districts don't start giving out the money by January, how will they be able to use it by June?" she asked. "They're going to take what they didn't spend and they are going to stick it in that Black Hole of Calcutta called their budget."

While Chancellor Klein didn't axe the RCCP office, his actions on violence prevention don't bode well, say supporters of conflict resolution strategies. If the office was cut to save money, how will Klein pay for more surveillance cameras and another 300 school security guards this spring? DOE spokesperson Feinberg said the cost of cameras for the selected high schools is being assessed. When asked the cost of cameras in a high school that already has them, Feinberg did not respond. But a spokesman for one company that provides school security cameras, Total Recall Corporation, said the cost of installing a closed circuit camera system in a typical high school could run from $25,000 to $500,000.

"You begin to wonder what people's understanding of conflict resolution is," said Arthur Foresta, head of the principal-mentoring program at New Visions for Public Schools and former principal of P.S. 261 in Brooklyn. "A lot of smart people at the education department don't seem to appreciate it. Maybe politically or in the public eye, coming on tough with a heavy hand has greater appeal."

Foresta has a point. Resorting to metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and guards quiets the clamor after a publicized incident at school. But the truth about school violence is more nuanced. Police statistics on school crimes released October 7, 2002, showed a 14 percent drop for the year in the six major crime categories—assault, robbery, rape, burglary, grand larceny, and homicide. And crime rates at the 10 highest-crime schools dropped by an average of 46 percent for the year. Among those schools are five—Tilden, Erasmus, Truman, South Shore, and Prospect Heights—that Klein has slated to get surveillance cameras. Why crime dropped there is a question Chancellor Klein should be asking.

Lorraine Jackson has some answers for Chancellor Klein. "Conflict resolution ought to be part of the curriculum in every school," she said. "Not cameras. They'll get torn down. Kids will put gum on them. Kids could fight on the corner, down the block from the school. It's not an issue of installing 5000 cameras. RCCP has been studied and it raises test scores. They're killing the goose that lays the gold egg."

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