Two students face another pair of students across a classroom table. 11-year-old Christina Kontzias, a sixth-grade student at Forestville Elementary, looks at 11-year-old Max Boyd, a sixth-grade student at Great Falls Elementary, and gently prods him with questions.
"Why do you feel the need to bully someone?" asks Kontzias. "How would you feel if somebody bullied you?"
Her partner, 10-year-old Jaclyn Marmol, a fourth-grade student at Timber Lane Elementary, chimes in for support.
"Do you think it's right to bully them?" she asks.
Boyd stares at the notebook in front of him.
"No," he replies.
"Pretend that you're in their place for a second," says Kontzias.
At this juncture, 13-year-old Karina Guerrero, an eighth-grade student at Longfellow, interrupts the discussion.
"That's really good," she says, letting Kontzias know that she is on the right track.
This was one of many group discussions carried out last week in a three-hour Peer Mediation Training session sponsored by the Safe Community Coalition, Inc. The SCC is an all-volunteer organization begun in 1995 to promote community safety through a variety of educational programs. It serves the area defined by the McLean and Langley High School pyramids, and last week's peer mediation training was the sixth time that the organization sponsored the annual event.
The training program was held at the Lutheran Redeemer Church in McLean on Monday, Dec. 5, and students in McLean and Great Falls in grades four to six were eligible to register. Through skits and roll-play exercises, students were able to learn the art of peer conflict resolution from middle-school and high-school peer mediators.
"The purpose of this program is to train young students to mediate just as a trained counselor would," said Lana McNulty, a member of the SCC who helped to organize the event.
STUDENTS FROM THE LANGLEY SCHOOL introduced the program by performing a skit that illustrated peer mediation in action. Then, students broke down into smaller groups and worked with peer mediators from Longfellow Middle School and Langley High School. Each group tackled a number of different conflict situations.
"They talk about how to start a mediation, they go over the roles of a mediator and the rules of confidentiality, and then they use storytelling to go over issues and needs, and they use the problem-solving process to brainstorm resolutions," said McNulty. "The whole time they are practicing mediation."
12-year-old Lauren Meeker, a sixth-grade student at Great Falls Elementary School, says she registered for the program because she enjoys "helping other people."
"We did one [exercise] on bullying, and we did one about stealing because people accuse other people, and then there are misunderstandings," said Meeker. "In some situations the solutions come right to you, but others are a lot harder."
14-year-old Tayyaba Feroze, an eighth-grade student at Longfellow, completed the SCC peer mediation program when she was in elementary school, and worked as a junior mediator at last week's training session.
"My friend suggested that I do it because I was always a really good problem solver," said Feroze. "I've been having a great experience helping a lot of people."
SCC MEMBER AND PROGRAM COORDINATOR Evelyn Fox says that not every conflict requires the involvement of a school administrator, which is one reason why she believes it is important to teach students how to settle their own disputes.
"But anyone who learns to mediate will benefit from it," said Fox. "It's useful in school, it's useful at home when you need to mediate with your parents – it's a life-skill."
Jan Auerbach, president of the SCC, says that she believes the peer mediation training program has two major strengths.
"One is that it focuses on elementary-school students, and we are finding that a lot of behaviors are being formed at that period," said Auerbach. "And the other thing that I really love is the peer aspect. You have high-school and middle-school students working with elementary-school students, and they are learning from their peers, and in many ways they are taken more seriously than the adults in their lives."
For Lana McNulty, the SCC program is important because she believes "conflict resolution is a wonderful way to solve a problem."
"You can go before a teacher, but then you are not given any choices, you can go before a principal but again you are not given any choices. ... so for a student to be able to go to other students their age and have them guide them through it, then there are definitely choices."