West High students mediate campus arguments in conflict management class.
by Glenn Moore
Dec 06, 2013 | 2334 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
West High School teacher Sue Moriarty (left) leads a discussion with students who act as conflict mediators in her conflict management class Wednesday, Nov. 20. Glenn Moore/Tracy Press
West High School teacher Sue Moriarty (left) leads a discussion with students who act as conflict mediators in her conflict management class Wednesday, Nov. 20. Glenn Moore/Tracy Press
Jamie Martinez remembers when she was a sophomore at West High and a male student threatened to hit her because of an argument with his girlfriend. Before the dispute went to blows, she and the other student were taken to a conflict management class, where their peers mediated their dispute.

Now a senior, Martinez is paying it forward and helping her classmates as a mediator who defuses conflicts often before they escalate to fights.

“It helped a lot. It made me see things in a different way,” she said. “That’s when I thought about joining the class.”

The class brings students who have had a conflict at school together with student mediators to find a resolution to the dispute.

Sue Moriarty teaches two classes of 18 students, juniors and seniors only. The group met as a peer educators club for a decade before it was turned into a class 10 years ago.

The class has recently added to its conflict management mission by completing San Joaquin County Behavioral Services training in “Yellow Ribbon” suicide prevention. The students will begin visiting West High classes and middle schools around Tracy after Thanksgiving to deliver anti-suicide messages.

Warning signs

Moriarty said the motivation to form the conflict management class stemmed from a campus climate that gave West High a troubled reputation many years ago.

“There was a need — go back 10 years ago with 3,500 students on campus — it was like a little city. There was a need with the fighting and everything that was going on,” Moriarty said.

Now, when a student hits another, both are suspended for five days. On the first day both students return to school, they are sent to conflict management. Moriarty said one of the students involved in the fight might not even know what the fight is about and might be scared to go back to class.

“We handle everything from fighting over a pencil in class to cyberbullying to texting to he said-she said disputes,” Moriarty said. “We try to get students before anything occurs, before they have a fight.”

Students can be sent to the conflict management class by an assistant principal’s referral, by campus security officers or by a parent who says a child is being bullied at school or is afraid of being beaten up. Moriarty said the only issues her students do not deal with are those related to gangs.

Positive peer pressure

The conflict management class has completed 50 mediations since September, and Moriarty said a large majority of them revolved around relationships. She said 98 percent of the time, the students say their fight was the result of a misunderstanding, a rumor or secondhand information about someone saying something.

Senior Richard Gallardo recently helped mediate a verbal confrontation between two girls in class.

“It was a misunderstanding someone said to one of the girls. She said something and she had said something else — the words got mixed up,” Gallardo said.

He said the class let both girls explain what happened and then helped them decide to talk it out next time.

“We listen to both stories, get both sides of the actual argument, and from there see what we can do to get deeper into what they can do solve their part of the problem, get the truth out,” he said

The student conflict mediators have to apply for the class and are interviewed and picked by Moriarty. The class makeup is designed to represent students from all ethnicities and social groups on the campus.

“It’s a lot easier to speak to one of your peers than speak to an adult, or an authority,” Gallardo said. “It is easier to relate to one of your peers than an assistant principal or a teacher.”

Two conflict mediators at a time work with the students and set ground rules: no interrupting, no physical fighting, no name calling. The participants also agree to try hard to solve the problem. The mediators keep all details confidential, and at the end of the mediation, both students write a resolution that Moriarty approves.

Making a difference

Martinez said she had two fights in her sophomore year and now uses her experience to help other teenagers through the conflict management class.

“I tell them, Don’t be afraid to talk. You can say whatever you want. I’ve actually been there before, and it helped me. That’s when they open more and tell me more about the problem,” Jamie said. “We know what they are going through. We have been there. We know how it feels and how to help them.”

Cristian Fabre, a senior in the conflict management class, said he has seen the changes in the climate around the West High campus.

“Things are getting a lot better especially from our freshman and sophomore years. There were a lot more fights going on at West,” Fabre said. “That’s why I took the class. I wanted to see the school become a better place.

Assistant Principal Bruce Sawyer said the class has made a positive impact on the students.

“There are so many opportunities for kids to have conflicts. This is a low-level intervention – it has stopped countless number of fights,” Sawyer said. “The kids are learning how to resolve conflicts. They really do a lot of soul searching in the class.”

• Contact Glenn Moore at 830-4252 or gmoore@tracypress.com.


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