The neighborhood civic league was not happy that a house had been purchased and would be converted into a home for troubled youths. The Youth Commission insisted that residents of the home will be good neighbors. Representatives from both sides sat at a table inside the Plaza Annex on a February afternoon, presenting their concerns. Voices were never raised, but it was clear that everyone was passionate about the outcome. A calm voice from a third party occasionally intervened.
This was actually a dramatization, a “Not in My Backyard” scenario played out as part of a state certification process to become a Level I Certified Mediator. The actors were all Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) employees who, by the end of the day, completed 20 hours of basic mediation professional learning. This was above and beyond the three-and-a-half hours of mediation training taken by school counselors, assistant principals and other administrators two years ago.
Dr. LaQuiche Parrott, director of the office for opportunity and achievement, put together this inaugural cohort of 12 VBCPS employees. “Mediation as a conflict resolution process can be applied across the school community,” she explained. “If VBCPS staff have an understanding of what mediation is and when the restorative practice may be applicable, then we add to our toolkit the ability to meet the social and emotional needs of our students.”
The practice of mediation aligns directly with recommendations set forth by the Student Discipline Task Force and the VBCPS strategic framework, Compass to 2020.
That is partly what inspired Stephanie Filio, school counselor at Larkspur Middle School, to take this extended training. “We talk to students all day about the importance of diversity in skill sets and being smart about having varied and real certifications for employee marketability, and opportunities such as these show that our division walks the talk.”
Certified mediator Karen Asaro, the group’s trainer, said that schools nationwide are looking for better methods of handling difficult issues. “The traditional way would be more of a disciplinary action, and that often doesn’t get to the root cause. Also students don’t always feel heard in that, so mediation offers a level playing field. Results might be the same, but the goal is that any mediation participant leaves with better conflict resolution skills.”
Filio compared what she was learning to her daily work. “The process is very similar to traditional counseling skills, in that you meet the client where they are instead of where you think they should be. This way, you are not guiding the client somewhere, but instead accepting that they are their own experts in terms of knowing what is good for them. It is a skill that can really bring a lot of peace to other aspects of life as well.”
Fellow cohort member Lavell White, school counselor at Tallwood High School, said it is necessary for counselors to have the tools to engage in both mediation and counseling. “I have always felt as if the educational system is at its best when healthy relationships serve as the foundation. As a school division, we needed to provide a resource by which to continue to educate the whole student by providing them with a means by which to engage in healthy conflict resolution and resilience. Mediation seemed to be an effective tool to not only establish healthy relationships between peers, but teachers and students as well. Everyone wants to be heard and everyone’s perspective is important.”
Following some co-mediation and observation of real cases in the coming months, each participant will be certified by the Virginia Supreme Court and can mediate in general district court cases as well as neighborhood disputes. Parrott is encouraged by the example the group sets for the division. “This cohort supports the ongoing capacity-building around mediation in our schools,” she said.
Many participants said they were inspired to pursue advanced certification and recommended any VBCPS employee consider the training. A second cohort is planned for the summer.
Asaro said the best mediators are good listeners, but she cautioned those who like to “fix things.” “If someone is prone to advice-giving,” she explained, “they’re probably going to struggle with mediation. I’m not saying they couldn’t do it. You can ask questions of clients, to get them thinking about solutions, but you don’t say ‘I think you should do this.’ You want that to come from them. So there’s buy-in from them, it feels like their solution.”
Mediation cohort members:
Jason Brooks, school counselor, Great Neck Middle School
Mary Dees, school coordinator student conduct/services, Department of School Leadership
Stephanie Filio, school counselor, Larkspur Middle School
Todd Fritz, guidance department chair, Landstown Middle School
Robert Lanz, guidance department chair, Salem Middle School
Catrina Manigo, assistant principal, Providence Elementary School
Michael McGee, director of student leadership, Department of School Leadership
LaQuiche Parrott, director of opportunity & achievement, Department of Teaching & Learning
Robin Reese, assistant principal, Bayside High School
Lavell White, school counselor, Tallwood High School
Emily Wilson, school counselor, Landstown Middle School
Nicole Yoshida, school counselor, Christopher Farms Elementary School