School mediation services. Chernihiv schoolkids are taught how to resolve conflicts peacefully

A brutal fight between girls prompted Chernihiv to create mediation services, where mediators from among the pupils help resolve conflicts.

In April 2017 Ukraine was horrified by a brutal fight between Chernihiv teenage girls. Dozens of witnesses stood and watched and used their phones to film three girls kicking and hitting Polina Maloshtan. The city responded to this by establishing mediation services in several schools. In this article, we’re going to describe what these services are and what they are for.

Behind this initiative was the Chernihiv Public Committee for Human Rights Protection. Committee program head Kateryna Dankova recalls that the NGO organized a strategic meeting after the incident, during which schools administrations, education bodies, local council members and activists looked for ways to make schools safer, finally choosing mediation. Mediation is an alternative method of conflict resolution which allows analyzing, through a mediator, the nature of the conflict in such a way so as to give the parties an opportunity to find a solution that would satisfy everyone’s needs and interests.

“The fight between the girls made it clear to teachers that mediation is necessary. After discussions with all stakeholders in Chernihiv, three pilot schools were selected for these services,” she says. Chosen to pilot the project were Lyceum No. 22, School No. 29 and Gymnasium (School) No. 31.

Together with the Institute for Peace and Common Ground, the Committee organized a presentation for 9 and 10 graders. The children filled in questionnaires which helped determine whether they can be mediators and who among them are trust leaders - those whom others can trust with their disputes and who can share their advice on these matters. After this, the schools selected 26 pupils for a 4-day training on mediation 101.

Lina Pavlenok

Lina Pavlenok (age 15) from Gymnasium No. 31 admits that conflicts happen sometimes in her own family and she would like to use her newly acquired knowledge to resolve them. The girl is about to choose her future career - she’s interested in psychology and wants to make sure that this is the occupation she would like to pursue.

Mykhailo Kolenko (age 16) is a moderator for an videogame that has 3.5 thousand players online at all times, with up to 3 conflicts occurring every month that he has to resolve.

“I want to learn how to resolve conflicts and make it clear to the players that mutual understanding is in their own best interests,” says the pupil of Lyceum No. 22.

 

HOW CONFLICTS RESOLUTION IS DONE

Mediation started in Chernihiv in last year’s October, and the mediators find themselves in demand every week. According to Natalia Sayenko, social mentor of the Lyceum, first a pupil informs her about a conflict. After this, two mediators are appointed via a Viber group chat who then talk to the quarreling parties during the large 15 minute recess or after classes.

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“At the start of the meeting, we tell the parties who we are and explain the principles of our work - voluntary participation, shared responsibility, neutrality and confidentiality,” says Anna Isayeva (age 14) from Gymnasium No. 31. “Confidentiality in mediation is very important. We are not allowed to discuss the situation outside the classroom. We carry out the mediation and then forget about the conflict.”

According to Olga Vynogradova (age 14), first it is necessary to establish the reason for the conflict, as it helps reconcile the parties.

“During our latest mediation, it took us a long time to understand why a person reacted aggressively. They initially claimed it was a defense reaction, but a conflict always has a cause. For instance, the parties could dislike each other ever since primary school. It is never a simple defense reaction.” says the pupil of Gymnasium No. 31.

Ольга Виноградова, Анна Ісаєва, Ірина Старикова та Ліна Павленок

“People often argue without even understanding why and what consequences their arguing can have, so it’s necessary to make it clear what each party wants, and then look for a compromise,” adds Anna Isayeva.

Mediators encourage quarreling schoolchildren to find common ground, explains Valeriya Lokayenko (age 15) from School No. 22.

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“I see myself as a bridge between people that helps them reach a compromise on their own,” she says.

The children explain that, when working on a conflict, the mediator should not take sides or say that the conflict is insignificant.

“Someone surely considers it important. If the mediator says something like this, one of the sides is going to take offense and won’t be open to further communication,” says Lina Pavlenok.

“Every conflict is worthy of the mediator’s attention, big or small. We will always support both sides and never just one of them. No matter what the nature of the conflict, we’re always willing to help,” adds Iryna Starykova (age 15) from Gymnasium No. 31.

The mediators believe their work provides results. After talking to them, the quarreling children never bring the matter up again, barring the situations when someone wasn’t entirely truthful.

“They have resolved the problem, forgotten the conflict and started talking again. I believe, this is an indicator of success,” says Anna Isayeva.

“At first schoolchildren are skeptical toward mediation, most have never even heard about it. But once they realize that this is serious, they start trusting us and understand that we can help them. After mediation they even advise other pupils to come to us,” says Lina Pavlenok.

According to Natalia Sayenko, while the school administration was in favor of the initiative, some teachers weren’t sure that children could do the job of a psychologist.

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“But a mediator is just an older friend, someone you can confide in. Children don’t always tell me about conflicts between them. They are either afraid or ashamed to. In the end, they do see me as a teacher first,” she says.

Mediation services came as a surprise for the parents as well. The social mentor spoke about one pupil’s mother who demanded to know what mediation was and why it had been done without her.

“I explained to her what it is. I told her: ‘Do you want your child to keep fighting? Or do you want her to learn how to listen and how to make herself be heard, to be able to speak the truth, to tell you when she’s in pain, why a quarrel began, to settle personal differences through conversation and find ways to resolve tensions?’ After that, parents realize the benefits of mediation,” says Natalia Sayenko.

 

PROJECT EXPANSION

The only thing the kids complain about is the absence of dedicated classrooms for mediation.

“Our organization has no funds to buy round tables, chairs, flip charts, office supplies and other necessary equipment,” says Kateryna Dankova. Fully equipping one mediation classroom will cost about 20 thousand hryvnias. At the moment, Chernihiv is working on changes to the local school program that should provide funding for such classrooms to be set up in 12 city schools.

The Chernihiv Public Committee for Human Rights Protection plans to continue mediation training for children in other schools. Next time certified pupil mediators will also be teaching their peers.

“Children should be engaged as co-trainers, to keep their motivation high. It will also give them more credibility in the eyes of training participants. Such pupils are role models for other kids,” says Kateryna Dankova.

 

WHY SCHOOLS SHOULD BE INTERESTED IN MEDIATION SERVICES

Since late 2018, Chernihiv police only has two school officers among its personnel. These officers hold awareness-raising events in schools and respond to calls from teachers, but that’s not enough manpower to cover 35 schools.

Alina Palub, curator of the school officer program at the police, was glad to hear about the emergence of mediation services. As she explains, the law forbids school officers to talk to children one on one. Violating this prohibition could result in criminal liability.

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“Conversations with children must be conducted in the presence of one of the parents, a social worker or a psychologist. If you want to help and talk to a kid one on one, his mother could file a report with the prosecutor’s office the next morning, claiming that we have pressured and intimidated the child so he can’t sleep at night. However, with three adults present, children still feel pressure and refuse to open up. They understandably don’t want to entrust their innermost feelings to a crowd. It’s another matter entirely when conflicting parties are approached by mediators who are pupils just like them”, says Alina Palub. The policewoman is convinced that, once the kids learn to resolve the conflicts among themselves on their own, the police will no longer be needed.

“We have noticed that despite our advice to call 102 in the event of violent incidents, as is the established procedure, school administrations often decide against it. Principals and their deputies are afraid of damaging their school’s reputation. Thus, schools must be especially interested in mediation services, since the school kids may be able to resolve conflicts on their own at an early stage”, she says.

At the same time, Alina Palub stresses that school administrations should not conceal systematic bullying and conflicts that they are unable to resolve (as per the new anti-bullying legislation – editor’s note).

“Bullying is systematic violence. If school administrations try to hide it, they and those who witnesse the bullying are going to face fines”, she warns.

Mykola Myrnyj, journalist, Human Rights Information Center

 

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