It was well-intentioned, but the participants weren’t nearly mature enough…

March 3, 2023, 10:00 AM

One of the defining features of sixth grade, i.e. my first year in middle school, was “peer mediation”.  In hindsight, I find it amusing that they tried it, but they certainly meant well by it.  The idea was that who were having a conflict with each other would go into a session with two other students who were trained in mediation who would then to facilitate a session to help the two students amicably work out their differences.  I remember that when they pitched it to us, they acted out an example mediation session, which had something to do with a library book that had been double-loaned, i.e. the one kid loaned the library book that was checked out to them to another kid, and then the double-loaned book was not returned to the library by the due date.  They then came to an agreement that one kid would return the book to the library and the other kid would pay the fines for the late return.  Sure, we’ll go with that.  I always felt like that was a poor solution, since the one kid in the example had no business double-loaning a library book in the first place, and therefore the consequences of a lost book should have all been on them, but, hey, what did I know.  After all, we had been living in Arkansas just a few short weeks prior to that, so I had enough going on with the move to Virginia and getting used to a new school and getting to know a whole new group of kids.  Therefore, I couldn’t really judge much, because I had not yet established a baseline for how things were supposed to work there.  I was also brand new to middle school in general, so I didn’t know if that was something that all middle schools did, or if it was something that Stuarts Draft Middle School specifically was doing, if it was some new initiative across the education industry, a statewide thing, a county thing, or whatever have you.  It was also never explained to anyone about why the program was being implemented, or what circumstances led to its creation, nor did anyone ever really communicate what the goals of it were.  Was it to reduce the number of discipline referrals?  Was it to lighten the teachers’ workloads?  Was it to reduce the number of physical confrontations?  No one ever said.

For the first few months of school, I was still processing a lot of information and putting pieces together and figuring things out, so I just sort of filed that information in the back of my brain.  It was there, but I had other things to worry about, like being driven nuts by the realization that the school had conducted a fire drill every single week during the first five weeks of school, among other things (I found out later that Virginia had a law requiring this fire drill overkill, though this is no longer the case).  I also didn’t anticipate that I would actually make use of the service, since I didn’t know that many people yet, being the new kid in town.

In practice, I got the sense that the school had the best of intentions in implementing such a program, but they also did not provide much education on how best to use the service amongst other forms of dispute resolution, plus middle schoolers do not have the requisite level of maturity to utilize it effectively.  I ended up getting hauled into peer mediation quite a few times that year, and most of the time, since anyone could refer anybody to mediation, even as a third party, it often was from kids using it as a bullying tactic.  The kids always figure out how to use these sorts of services in the way that benefits them most, and that’s not necessarily always the usage that the program anticipated, and that’s exactly what happened here, as they inadvertently gave the bullies a new arrow in their quiver.

The thing with peer mediation, and why it was so easily exploited for the wrong purposes, involved a few factors.  First, it was operated by two teachers, and so sessions were only done during their planning periods, which were third for one teacher, and seventh for the other.  Therefore, if you got referred to peer mediation, you were pulled out of class for this. It never occurred during the holding period that was opposite the lunch period, or other non-instructional time.  So if someone wanted to get out of class, peer mediation was a good way to do it, because they would schedule it for you and then pull you out of class for it.  Then it also enabled the bullies because it forced you to discuss whatever “issue” they might have had with you, and the fact that it was facilitating a bullying situation was either ignored or not recognized, because the system assumed that people were entering the process in good faith, even when they weren’t.  And the only way out was to come to a resolution, which often meant that the bullies got what they wanted, using the mediation process to bully their victims.  It also was used as a way for the school staff to attempt to resolve issues without getting their own hands dirty, when some of these issues should have been handled by the school more directly, or even referred to outside services.  And, of course, the other participant was completely in the dark about everything until they were brought into the session.  On more than one occasion, I was sent out of class and told to go to one of the teachers’ rooms for peer mediation, and was walking down there with no idea who it was or why I was going there.  There was no advance notice, and no way of turning it down if I didn’t want to participate in that process.  And that, of course, helped the bullies because they could haul you in for whatever nonsense that they wanted to get you for, and the school fully enabled it.

The first time that I was referred to peer mediation was in like October, by a kid that I had to sit next to on the bus to and from school.  We had assigned seats on the bus at that time, and this kid and I did not get along (this kid will be a recurring topic here, so get ready).  The school bus in Stuarts Draft was an absolute disaster as it was, with inadequate supervision of a busload of kids (the only adult on the bus was the driver, and they had to focus primarily on driving the bus, so despite the presence of an adult, the kids were largely unsupervised), but that’s for another Journal entry.  So he had me hauled into peer mediation over something that I was apparently doing that he didn’t like – something that he had made completely up out of whole cloth.  I had never done this peer mediation thing before, so I was like, sure, why not.  I went through the whole thing and agreed not to do the thing that I wasn’t doing in the first place.  I was annoyed over getting pulled out of class for that nonsense, but at least I learned how the process was supposed to function.  So even though this kid was clearly using peer mediation as a way to bully me, at least I got to see how it worked.  Cool.

The second time that I was brought into peer mediation was initiated by a teacher.  This was in regards to an incident that occurred outside of school and later sort of spilled into school.  What happened was in November 1992, we had a two-hour early dismissal from school on a Wednesday in order for the staff to participate in some function.  After I got home, I went on a bike ride around the neighborhood.  A kid who was in my homeroom lived along the route that I was taking, and he was outside, playing with a BB gun.  I waved hello as I rode by, but kept things moving, since I wasn’t planning to make a visit.  As I passed by, I felt a stinging sensation on my left backside.  That little bastard shot his BB gun at me, and the BB hit me.  I continued on my way (I was already heading home), and told my parents about it when I got back.  Mom was not pleased about it, and I want to say that she took care of it by talking to the kid’s mother (we also attended the same church).  In any event, the next day, I was not shy about telling everyone in school about how this kid shot me in the butt with a BB gun, and I called him out by name when telling people about it, because that’s what I did in the days before Schumin Web (i.e. not much has changed).  The kid didn’t feel particularly badly about what he had done, and even tried to defend himself, claiming that he didn’t shoot me in the butt, but rather, had hit me a little higher up.  That was rich – you still shot at me, and your defense was that you didn’t hit me there, but rather in a slightly different location, and that was reason to try to discredit me.  And truth be told, where specifically on my body that the projectile made contact was fairly immaterial, because it was still a hit all the same.  He also tried to claim that it was an accident, which I didn’t believe for a second.  A few weeks later, we were both hauled into peer mediation at the behest of an unnamed teacher in order to “work this out”.  Nothing like being pulled out of class and having to air our dirty laundry in front of two other kids who had no business hearing this, when I was the victim in all of this.  In hindsight, this really should have been referred to law enforcement from the outset, so he and his parents should consider themselves very fortunate that we didn’t go that route, largely because we didn’t think to take it that way at the time.  After all, no one in that family had clean hands in that incident.  The kid was an idiot for firing at me, and the parents weren’t out there supervising their 11-year-old child who was playing with a gun.  The school likely sent it to mediation so that they wouldn’t have to get their hands dirty dealing with it, since while the original incident happened outside of school, it spilled into school by virtue of that’s being where we saw each other most often.  Fortunately, the matter had already died out by then for the most part, so it was largely a moot point.

For what it’s worth, our relationship got a little better as we got older (after all, we did go to the same school and the same church, so it behooved us to bury this hatchet), though I still kept him at a somewhat reasonable distance.  I added him as a connection on Facebook after not having seen him for about ten years, because why not.  However, I eventually blocked him, because he had grown up to be a complete psycho, and I realized that I was better off without him in my life.  So that was the end of him for good, and just as well.

Meanwhile, I also hauled the kid from the earlier school bus incident in there one time, because of his continued bullying of me.  I quickly discovered the value of that peer mediation service when, after we had come to an agreement that he was to leave me alone, he immediately disregarded the agreement that we had reached and kept on doing his thing, since there was no enforcement mechanism to go along with it.  In other words, the peer mediation service was not worth a bucket of warm spit.

The biggest peer mediation session was with the same kid who had previously disregarded our earlier agreement.  My parents had been working with the guidance counselor to figure out what we could do to put an end to the bullying from this kid, and so the guidance counselor and my parents agreed to have us referred to peer mediation, which Mom had made me aware of ahead of time.  I was already done with peer mediation by then, since there was no value in it if no one abided by the agreements that were made there.  Plus, we had already been through this before with this same kid in particular, and it had been a waste of everyone’s time, and I had no reason to think that another round would come up with a different result.  But I had my parents and school staff strongly encouraging me to give it another shot, so I went through with it despite my reservations.

However, this particular mediation session was not to be a judgment-free experience.  One of the two teachers that ran the program pulled me aside beforehand and told me in no uncertain terms that I was making excessive use of the service, and that I had more peer mediation referrals than any other student in the school.  I considered that to be an unfair criticism, because I had no control over most of those referrals.  In other words, I was being bullied via peer mediation, and now the teacher in charge of it was bullying me on top of it.  And when you think about it, she was criticizing me for participating in a dispute resolution service, and faulting me for a bunch of referrals, even though a lot of those referrals were not my doing.  You would think that it would be commendable, finding a mature way to deal with conflicts rather than just beating the crap out of people, but no, it was instead framed as something’s being wrong with me for having been in there so many times.  That was a really bad message to send.  I thought that peer mediation was supposed to be a mature way to resolve issues, but clearly, I was just a massive inconvenience for them.  I wonder if it would have been less of an inconvenience to them if I had just beaten the crap out of my bullies instead.  It probably would have been less of a hassle for them, because then they could just suspend everyone for a few days and wash their hands of it all.  If I wasn’t already done with peer mediation by then, I certainly would have been done with it after that interaction.  You don’t want me to use it anymore?  Fine, then.  Let’s just line the kids up and start beating them up in an orderly manner in order to settle our differences.

If one kid was using the service too much, that should have been an indication that something else was wrong elsewhere in their system, i.e. the peer mediation referrals were a symptom of a much larger problem.  Unfortunately, however – and we see this over and over again – school staff are both uninterested in trying to solve actual problems, and they are unable to look inward and recognize when they are contributing to a problem.  It’s like what Principal Skinner once said on The Simpsons: “Am I so out of touch?  No.  It’s the children who are wrong.”  School officials just assume that they are always right and that the children are wrong by default.  That’s a major weakness in how schools handle things when they can’t (or won’t) see the contributing role that their own actions play in a situation.  In this case, they had a bullying problem, and their peer mediation program was having the opposite effect than intended, enabling bullying rather than helping resolve conflict, but they couldn’t see it, choosing to blame the victim instead.  So thanks for nothing.

This peer mediation session lasted two days, much to everyone’s chagrin.  So for what it was worth, I missed my third period class for two days in a row for this, which was my “exploratory” class (i.e. fine arts and vocational subjects).  So I already resented that, since I liked exploratories, and tended to always get an A in those classes.  I didn’t want to miss those, since exploratories were both easy and fun.  But then when we got into it, the first thing that the other kid did was to ask if there were any consequences for submitting “false peer mediation referrals”, i.e. he wanted me to be punished for this peer mediation referral that I did not put in and had my doubts about as well, but was being compelled to attend by parents and guidance.  In hindsight, I should have walked out right then and there, because that statement from him was a pretty clear sign that the other party was not acting in good faith.  The two-day session came to a predictable result, that being, leave me the hell alone.  I was hoping that this issue would be over, but I knew full well that it wouldn’t be.  And I was right.  The entire exercise turned out to be a waste of everyone’s time, as the kid immediately ignored the agreement that we had come to and kept right on at it, mediation be damned.  And I was absolutely done with peer mediation at that point, i.e. it would be a cold day in the summer before I ever went into one of those things again as long as I had anything to do with it.

However, I wasn’t the only person that this particular kid had pissed off that year.  During the time after our final mediation session, he started pissing off a few more kids who were less concerned about getting suspended, and they would beat him up.  He ended up getting suspended a lot during the last few months of that year for fighting.  I got the last laugh, though, as he wrote a check that his ass couldn’t cover in the waning days of the school year.  He made a false accusation against me to the Phys. Ed teacher, who took the kid entirely at his word and sent me to the office for it.  That was the first mistake, right there.  The staff member didn’t bother to check to see if it was an actual issue before acting.  Instead, they just kicked it all up to the administration to deal with.  In other words, they had the power to nip it in the bud, especially since this teacher knew me very well and knew how I rolled and should have known that such language was very out of character for me.  But instead, they decided not to bother with verifying what actually happened and just started a disciplinary process, which enabled the bully.  So from my perspective, imagine this: we had all just finished up for the day in Phys. Ed, we had changed back into our regular clothes, and were waiting for the class change bell to ring, which would mean it was time for lunch.  A couple of minutes before the bell, I was handed a disciplinary referral and sent to the office.  I was dumbfounded, because this came completely out of left field.  On it, I was accused of cursing, allegedly calling someone one of the seven dirty words that you cannot say on television (if you’re interested, it was #5 that I was accused of saying).  Back in sixth grade, I didn’t have the potty mouth that I do now.  I didn’t swear at all, which would probably surprise quite a few people who only know me as an adult.  Even with the commode mouth that I now have, though, I usually only use #1 through #3, and sometimes #6.  That fifth one is just… unrefined.  But regardless, I ended up missing most of my lunch period over that one, and then got chewed out by the cafeteria staff for getting my lunch so late (because I had been in the office for that ridiculous disciplinary referral).  When I saw the assistant principal, we discussed it, and he quickly discovered that I had never heard that term before until the teacher taught it to me just then via the disciplinary referral, and as such, I had no idea what that term meant.  So I got sent back to class with no action taken against me.  Meanwhile, with only a week left in the school year, the other kid started his summer vacation early, having been suspended for the remainder of the year.  Clearly, the school was ready to be done with him as much as I was, and unlike me, they had the power to make him go away.  And good riddance to him.  With my bully gone, that last week of school was a very peaceful affair.

But as far as peer mediation went, there was one more notable incident there after the big two-day time suck.  A kid that I didn’t interact with that much, but who was not a nice person to me nonetheless when we did cross paths, had me hauled in there for a complete nonsense reason.  In catching a glance at the form that he had submitted as the session was starting, I saw that he didn’t even spell my name right, which told me a lot.  If you have that big of an issue with me, one would think that it would be worthwhile to go to the effort to find out how my name is spelled.  I don’t remember what he was accusing me of, but I do remember that it was complete garbage.  I did not take kindly to that one at all, but I assumed that I had to go through with it because that’s what we were supposed to do.  The teacher who was sitting in the room for this session (the other one, not the one who chewed me out for alleged overuse of the service) saw that I wasn’t having it, and he came up and told me that I was free to leave at any time.  He knew.  You didn’t have to tell me twice.  Ciao, baby.  I’ll bet the kid felt really foolish after that, sitting in a room with two mediators and no opposing party, realizing that his little plan to bully me had backfired, and he had wasted everyone’s time after I walked out of the session.  I wonder if the teacher had a word with him afterward about wasting everyone’s time.  Sometimes I do get one over on these kids, like when I called that one kid “Butthead” in front of his mother at the grocery store.  And like Butthead, I never heard a peep out of that kid ever again.  And that was the last time that I ever had to deal with peer mediation in school.

All in all, the school may have had the noblest intentions in offering peer mediation, but middle schoolers are just too immature to make good use of it, plus teachers don’t want to get their hands dirty with kids at that age, either, and as such, they give the kids more credit in being able to work it out themselves than they ever ought to get.  Thus the mediation program, or perhaps Frank Wade’s approach of doing nothing until it finally comes to blows, and then just pulling them apart and sending them all to the office.  Working it out amicably amongst each other comes a little later on.  In middle school, they still need an adult to guide them through it.  Unsurprisingly, the peer mediation program did not return the following year, and as far as I was concerned, nothing of value was lost.  The program was a failure, as it was used for all the wrong reasons, which wasted everyone’s time, and meant that no one benefitted from it except for bad actors.

Categories: Middle school