This paper focuses on the national epidemic of peer harassment in schools and the possible use of peer mediation to solve this problem. Experts have reported that peer mediation is not well-suited to bullying because of the delicacy of such situations and the great power imbalance between the two parties. However, this paper argues that bullying, if approached correctly, could be effectively handled through peer mediation. In fact, the benefits of peer mediation will be demonstrated to be greater than the benefits of other traditional methods of resolution. To illustrate this theory, this paper will first discuss the emerging bullying crisis and a short overview of the criticisms of peer mediation as a solution. It will then provide a background on peer mediation and bullying separately, followed by an in-depth look at how the two combined could create healthier students and schools.
Bullying as a national problem
The buzz word of the twenty-first century among education professionals has been “bullying”. Ever since school violence was thrust into the national spotlight by the shootings at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, society has paid more attention to peer harassment and the impact it has on our nation’s youth. Experts from the Secret Service were called in to help develop profiles of the Columbine and other school shooters. They found that, in one case, the attacker’s schoolmates described the attacker as “the kid everyone teased.” In witness statements from that incident, schoolmates alleged that nearly every child in the school had at some point thrown the attacker against a locker, tripped him in the hall, held his head under water in the pool, or thrown things at him.
It is true that conflict is an unavoidable part of human interaction. Sometimes children develop conflicts that end in pushing, shoving, yelling, or fighting, which is considered normal for child and adolescent behavior. However, when the conflict becomes the repeated bullying of one child, the effects can be devastating. Victims are at an increased risk for depression and other mental health problems while bullies are six times as likely to have criminal records as young adults. For some students the fear of bullying is so great that they avoid school altogether. Every day approximately 160,000 students stay home from school because they are afraid of being bullied. At worst case scenario, the harassment can escalate into “bullycide”, a term which refers to the phenomena of repeated bullying leading to the death of the victim or the violent and fatal revenge taken against the bully by the bullied.
The devastating effects of bullying do not fade once these victimized children leave school. Studies have found a higher level of depression and lower self-esteem among formerly bullied individuals at age twenty-three, even though as adults these individuals were no more harassed or socially isolated than a control group. The effects are also not limited to stress placed on the bullied victim. Recent school shootings have repeatedly shown us the tragedy of violence towards school officials and innocent students during acts of revenge taken by the victim. Since the shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999, state legislators across the United States have furiously reinserted themselves into educational policy by passing a variety of new state laws meant to enhance school safety, including new laws against “bullying”.
However, bullying has proven to be a complicated issue and one which is not easily solved. Bullying is, unfortunately, not an isolated problem involving a few children at every school. 75% of school-aged children reported being bullied at least one time during their school years. The task of stopping peer harassment has fallen mainly to school administrators and teachers, as research indicates that the school is without doubt where most of the bullying occurs. However, the school system is not well suited to handle the daily complications of bullying. Most schools have disciplinary systems regarding student conflict, which do not manage interpersonal differences between students. Some bullying behaviors do not involve a violation of a school rule, i.e. one student systematically turning the class against another student through gossip. The conflict only reaches the system once it escalates, leading one or both of them to break a school rule.
Even if the bullying behavior does reach the attention of school authorities, the system in place does not address bullying effectively. Most school administrators would immediately take disciplinary actions against the bully. A punitive response from the disciplinary system would typically involve an administrator speaking to the harasser after learning of the incident, punishing him according to the severity of the actions taken, and possibly directing him to apologize to the victim in verbal or written form. This kind of response may set the original victim up for retaliation from the bully, which could stop him from involving school officials. It also may be embarrassing for the victim, who has already been made to feel weak by the harassing behavior.
In addition, it may be difficult for school administrators and teachers, who are already faced with great responsibilities, to determine the differences between normal interaction and bullying. While every student gets into a fight at some point, bullying is a separate, more damaging behavior. Bullying is defined by Dan Olweus as “a student being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other students.” Not all negative actions are obvious. Bullying includes overt and covert behaviors. It may be difficult for teachers to recognize the repeated negative actions of one or several students against another student if that teacher is responsible for the well-being of thirty to fifty children.
It is obvious that something must be done to stop the act of bullying. One creative approach would be peer mediation, a practice commonly implemented to solve conflicts in schools across the nation. Peer mediation is a program in which a student acts as a mediator between two other students and mediates the conflict usually without the help of an adult. This process has been shown to be beneficial to all. The mediator learns conflict resolution skills and all the students involved practice considering situations from all points of view. Because the student mediator has no power over the student parties in the conflict, he or she is not seen as a threat and thus is actually empowered in the process, particularly if the mediator is someone who is considered to be a “cool” member of the student body. Nonviolence training conducted by older peers may be particularly powerful because, as one high school student put it, younger students “don’t look up to old people; they look up to teenagers.”
Yet, peer mediation is not commonly used to stop bullying. Experts have maintained that bullying is not well-suited to mediation. Sue Limber of Clemson University argues that because bullying involves powerful children harassing those with less power, mediation approaches might even further victimize bullied children by assuming that they have the power, without adult intervention, to prevent the bullying. If the peer mediation turns into a situation in which the bully is able to harass the victim further while embarrassing the victim in front of the mediator, the harmful effects of bullying may be traumatic.
However, this paper puts forth the idea that peer mediation could be tailored and applied in such a way as to provide a healthier and more complete solution to the problem of peer harassment. The holistic approach of peer mediation, in its attempts to solve the damaged relationship as well as to restore losses and discourage repeated offenses, could be perfectly utilized when peer harassment situations occur. In order to truly understand the benefits of peer mediation and the ways in which bullying should be addressed, one must first understand peer mediation and bullying separately.
The practice of peer mediation
Peer mediation is a conflict resolution approach created to involve students in the peacemaking process by putting the authority and skills to resolve disputes directly into their hands. Students learn the skills of mediation and apply them to conflicts between their peers. Peer mediations are different in certain aspects from traditional mediations. Peer mediation sessions do not last very long, typically less than an hour. One author reported that these sessions last fifteen minutes in elementary schools, thirty-five minutes in middle school, and fifty-five minutes in high schools on average, with the overwhelming majority resulting in agreements that are amenable to the parties.
Peer mediators also have a natural advantage, in that they understand their peers in a way which is circumstantially impossible for any adult involved in the situation. A student is better equipped to identify with another student’s perceptions on behavior, word choice, school climate and acceptable remedies because the student does not have to strain his or her imagination in order to see himself or herself inside the shoes of the two parties. Therefore, the responses of the peer mediator may help to move the conversation along more naturally than the practiced responses of an adult.
Peer mediation has other benefits. Mediation exists partially to help parties understand each other’s perspective, even if they do not necessarily agree. By enabling parties to “hear” each other, mediators clarify misunderstandings. Mediation also puts the control into the hands of the students themselves. By controlling the outcome and process, students are more likely to keep from engaging in the same problem behaviors once the mediation has ended. Finally, peer mediation can be a welcome alternative to traditional disciplinary action taken by school administrators. Not only are the students more likely to enjoy it, mediation emphasizes personal responsibility rather than external accountability, emphasizing education rather than punishment.
In some cases, the program is very effective and many students take full advantage of the system. An Ohio program, Winning Against Violent Environments (WAVE), is currently used in every one of Cleveland’s 118 schools. A supervisor who oversaw 44 of the 1,712 mediations conducted in one year in Cleveland noted that one boy went to mediation six times before it dawned on her that the child was picking fights because he was actually listened to in mediation (the boy was made a mediator the following year).
However, not all programs are as successful. In a junior high of 1000 students, research revealed that while 95% of students knew about the peer mediation program, less than 9% actually used it. The responses identified six factors that inhibited the use of peer mediators: peer pressure, student methods of dealing with conflict, experiences within the school, school climate, knowledge of peer mediation and societal issues. The group saw peer pressure as an issue because they reported worrying about what other would think if they selected mediation. Students worried that they would be made fun of, or would be seen as “sucking-up” to the school staff.
Students also reported concerns about being seen as unable to solve their own problems. However, the second issue which arose showed that most students deal with conflict by avoiding or ignoring it. Therefore, they were not likely to seek peer mediation as a solution. The students’ experiences with the school contributed to the reluctance to seek out peer mediation, as students felt disconnected from their teachers and were less likely to trust a school-implemented program. School climate, the fourth issue, reflected that adults who are not trained in mediation skills perpetuated a lack of respect for students and did not provide opportunities for bonding, which was connected to a student perception of peer mediation as being authority-based and untrustworthy.
Students from this sample also reflected little knowledge of peer mediation and were reluctant to become involved in a system they didn’t understand. The last issue, societal issues, showed that too few role models existed outside the school setting, resulting in a lack of understanding and few factors which valued or supported mediation. The combination of these issues led to peer mediation being overlooked by the student body as a solution for conflict.
However, many of these issues can be addressed by school administrators when implementing the program. Educating the teachers about the importance of conflict resolution skills and relationship building methods of dispute resolution may contribute to a school climate in which peer mediation is embraced. As more students are educated about mediation and its benefits, the possibilities of using mediation are increased. Once more people use peer mediations, students will be less worried about possible repercussions from their peers. An emphasis on the many benefits of peer mediation promoted by school administrators could turn student’s perceptions of the process.
Bullying behaviors and why they occur
As stated above, occasional conflict between students is a normal part of growing up. Bullying refers to a different situation. There seems to be a growing consensus that bullying has three components: (1) aggressive behavior or intentional “harm doing” by one person or a group which is (2) carried out repeatedly and over time and (3) is targeted towards someone less powerful. This is the behavior which can be so damaging to the students involved.
Traditional theories about bullying are generally incorrect. Many people believe that bullying occurs when a young juvenile delinquent mercilessly picks on weaker students simply because they are poor students, have low self-esteems or are just “bad seeds”. However, the stereotype of the lone, maladjusted thug-like bully, with his few toadies, has proven to be an incorrect assessment of students who bully. A substantial number of bullies are seen as both popular and powerful with leadership qualities, competencies and assets. In terms of their own social self perceptions, bullies report feeling good about themselves and their peer interactions. Dan Olweus’ bullying research found nothing to suggest that the behavior of the aggressive boys was a consequence of poor grades or failures at school. Instead, the Olweus bullying studies found that bullies experienced unusually small amounts of anxiety and insecurity.
These bullies are therefore generally popular students with developed social skills and a supportive peer community. Although not always liked, these children are respected and followed. A smaller percentage of students who bully fall into a separate category, the bully-victims. These students are those who have been bullied by others in the past and who reacted violently by attempting to bully back. These students are more likely to suffer from the lack of a peer group experienced by victims, and therefore may more closely fit the traditional model of the loner juvenile delinquent bully, but research has shown that these types of students are generally responsible for less than half of bullying behaviors. Therefore it is important to consider both types of bullies.
It is also important to remember that boys and girls bully equally, although bullying methods chosen by boys and girls are different . Boys tend to be more violent physically, while girls bully through gossip and rumor-starting. Another type of nonphysical aggression practiced among girls is “shunning”. Shunning is the equivalent of “the kiss of death among teens”, especially girls, because it involves denying social interaction, totally isolating the target from any peer contact.
Victims of bullying come from a variety of backgrounds, but commonly are without developed social skills or a peer support group. Research has found that half of children who do not belong to any peer network become bullying victims. If victims do not belong to a peer group, they may not benefit from peer group socialization experiences that are normally associated with the peer group (i.e. protection from peers), and that are requisite for a healthy social development.
Some researchers support the theory that bullying victims are targeted and persecuted for external attributions. However, Dan Olweus points out that studies which suggest that students are victimized based on external attributes overlooks the students with those attributes who are not bulled. He believes that a bully will probably pick on and make use of possible external deviations in a bully/victim situation, but this does not mean that the external deviation is the cause of the bullying.
The fourth group of students who are involved in bullying are the bystanders. Although not actively a part of the interaction, students who are bystanders are involved in the bullying behavior just the same. Psychologist Peter Fonagy commented on the importance of bystanders, noting, “The whole drama is supported by the bystander. The theater can’t take place if there’s no audience.” Often bystanders do not become involved, either because they do not wish to be directly connected to the behavior, they feel powerless to stop it, or they believe that the victim “deserves” the bullying and that it isn’t a negative behavior.
It is important to remember that the bystanders are often witnessing the bullying of a student without friends, and therefore someone who probably has no connection to the bystander, by a popular student who may be a leader in the bystander’s social group. Bystanders also are likely hesitant to risk losing social status by extending help to a low status student. When bystanders do intervene, studies show that the intervention is typically undertaken only by students with high social status. This points to the conclusion that these students are those whose risk of becoming a low status student, and therefore a victim of the bullying themselves, is minimized.
When considering the four roles of bully, bully-victim, victim and bystander it is important to remember that these titles are not locked definitions of the students themselves. Bullying is an interaction between the individual and his or her peers, school, family, culture and community. Thus, bullying is not simply a behavior, and the titles of “bully”, “victim” and “bully-victim do not represent an innate characteristic of a person.
Bringing bullying and peer mediation together
Bullying is a difficult situation and is not currently being dealt with effectively by school administrators and teachers. In one middle school study bullies, victims and no-status students (bystanders) felt that when school staff knew that bullying occurred, the staff responded in a satisfactory fashion. However, 80% of the sample group reported that the school staff did not know that the bullying occurred. In addition, bully-victims in the sample group felt that the school did not address bullying issues well, even when aware of the situation, when they were either victims or bullies. This paper argues that peer mediation could be a creative and effective way of addressing the bullying problem. However, the consensus among scholars is that this combination would be inappropriate. Therefore, this section will begin with a discussion of the possible problems that could arise if peer mediation was used to address bullying.
A common criticism of using peer mediation to address bullying is the risk of power imbalances. In bullying, one part has behaved in a way that offended or injured a second, and the latter has done little if anything to provoke the first. The imbalanced is deepened as the harasser may have more actual or perceived power than the victim: physical power, institutional power, the support of peers, a facility with language or culture, cognitive ability, etc.
Power imbalances are not uncommon in mediation, even outside the harassment arena. These problems are generally dealt with through assistance from the mediator, or an emphasis on the equal power theory of mediation. One way to handle the power imbalance issue in peer mediation would be to have a screening process prior to the mediation. A screening process is an essential element to a successful peer mediation program because it ensures that the mediation is an appropriate solution to the problem. A school administrator would separately speak to the parties involved to determine if mediation may be a good solution. For example, in one situation a boy may feel bullied by another boy’s repeated comments about the victim’s family background or race. If the screening process revealed that the bully had no real hostility and was just joking around in fun, a mediation may be appropriate to ensure that the students had the opportunity to exchange points of view.
However, a different example could be made of a situation ill-suited to mediation. If one student was bullied by two other students and the screening process revealed that the two bullying students had no remorse about their actions and were entertained by the victim’s suffering, mediation would be inappropriate and would likely open the student up to more victimization by the pair. In this case, another approach would need to be taken by the school administrator. The peer mediators could also be educated on how to spot problems of power imbalances as well as ways to know if the mediation is turning into a situation in which the student with less power could be in danger of further victimization.
There is also the problem of finding bullying behavior to mediate. As explained before, bullies do not necessarily think of their behavior as wrong, so there is no reason for them to seek help from mediation. Victims may not report problems out of fear of retaliation, embarrassment at being victimized, or simple ignorance that there are penalties for actions taken against him or her on school property. So, if bullies are not reporting cases for mediation, and victims are not reporting cases for mediation, that leaves only the witnesses to bring the situation to the peer mediation. Placing the burden on the witnesses opens the chances of successful peer mediation up to failure. Witnesses may not wish to be involved, even if they wish for the activity to stop. They also may fear retaliation against themselves from a bully. So cases that could have been mediated go unreported and therefore unsolved.
This solution to this problem has two parts. The first is to cure the lack of reported bullying behaviors. This could most effectively be done by changing the school climate and attitudes towards bullying. If the students begin to find bullying repugnant as a body, they are more likely to report bullying incidents. The second part is that this problem assumes that peer mediation will falter without bullying conflicts to mediate. In fact, students who use peer mediation use it for a large number of interpersonal conflicts, so the question is not “how do we find mediations to mediate?” but rather “should we include bullying in the mediations were are already doing?”.
The final common criticism of peer mediation as a way to address bullying is the severity of the possible effects of bullying. This paper discussed earlier the violent and public reactions to bullying some students have experienced. To avoid these reactions, and the extensive harm which victimized students could suffer, it is necessary that bullying is effectively dealt with. Therefore, critics concerned with school safety and the ability of peer mediators to handle these delicate situations believe that bullying should never be handled through a peer mediation program.
This is especially true when the bullying involves a deeper issue, such as racism or homophobia, or when the bullying behaviors include acts of sexual harassment. In a five to four U.S. Supreme Court decision following a lawsuit claiming that a school district permitted a sexually hostile environment to exist, the Court held that schools are liable for student-to-student sexual harassment if the school officials knew about the sexual harassment and failed to take action. Therefore, schools should be especially cautious about these situations. However, the screening process performed by a school administrator, discussed above, should prove to be an effective method of weeding out those conflicts which are too pervasive, continuous or harmful to be dealt with through peer mediation, while allowing the benefits of peer mediation to continue for other bullying situations.
The benefits of peer mediation, when considered in combination with bullying, are many. The traditional system of dealing with bullying through detention or other forms of punitive action do not allow for a change in perceptions of self and other between the victim and bully. Both are likely to see the victim as “weak”. Although the bully is being punished, the harm to the victim could likely be increased by act of punishment. When a bully is sent to detention, suspended, or forced to deliver a verbal apology, the victim is deprived of a voice and seen as one unable to manage his or her own problems, thus perpetuating the image of the victim’s weakness in the minds of both bully and victim, which could potentially aggravate the after effects of bullying by creating a situation ripe for retaliation against the victim or magnifying the trauma of the experience of being bullied and the effects upon the victim’s self-perception.
Peer mediation, however, offers a chance for the victim to have a voice. Although the bully may respond uncooperatively, which could lead to the appearance that the bully is controlling the mediation, the opportunity for the victim to express himself or herself and ask questions of the bully may be exactly what the victim wants and needs. The victim may feel better about having answers, rather than just questions, despite the possibility that the bully’s answers will ultimately be unsatisfactory.
The idea of victim voice does raise the possibility that the victim may be unable to communicate effectively in the mediation, while the bully is likely to have stronger interpersonal skills. Screening would help to weed out those victims who are not suitable for a mediation interaction. Other creative solutions have been developed by peer mediation programs. In some mediation programs, trained “victim surrogates” replace the real victims of harassment, and the surrogates “mediate” with harassers. The surrogates are trained to educate and inform rather than to blame the harasser.
A second solution is a type of shuttle-diplomacy peer mediation. One student mediator asks that parties write a letter to each other and bring their letter to a preliminary private meeting. The coordinator is responsible for editing the letter with each party, taking out accusations and sarcasm and re-framing the language so that the other party will be more likely to understand. Then the coordinator presents the letters to each party in private. Both of these creative approaches to peer mediation eliminate the need for the victim to speak up in front of the bully, while still giving the victim a voice in the situation.
Resolving the conflict inside the mediation may also bring a quick end to the bullying behavior, something that the victim may desperately desire. If a bully is subjected to traditional discipline, there is a high chance that the bully will retaliate and continue, if not worsen, the treatment of the victim. Even if the bullying behavior does not continue, the relationship between victim and bully will continue to be damaged, which could cause continuing harm to one or either party. A quick resolution of the interpersonal conflict inside a peer mediation session would put a stop to both of these problems and could quite possibly speed the healing process for the victim, who will have received benefits from being heard and having a dialogue with the person who was causing them harm.
Peer mediation could also serve the interests of a victim who does not want the bully to receive punitive actions for other reasons. Such reasons include a desire for the bully to stop his behavior, but not necessarily a desire for the bully to suffer punishment. Another reason could be that the victim does not want to involve adults in the situation, for example a situation where the victim is a student who is being bullied by a sibling. Understandably, because of the family situation and the high likelihood of constant contact with the sibling, a victim being bullied by a family member may wish to completely avoid adult interference. Peer mediation could provide an arena in which the sibling could present his feelings on the matter and ask questions, without having to initiate and manage the discussion on his own at home or elsewhere.
Sibling bullying is fairly common, likely because such power dynamics may be a part of the home environment. During a discussion between teachers and parents at Hillsdale Elementary School in Needham, Massachusetts, the teachers provided information about a program designed to stop teasing. Many parents were surprised to learn that the majority of students who complained about being the targets of bullying said it was their siblings who were the bullies. Generating understanding about interpersonal conflicts between siblings would also enhance the sibling relationship in ways that discipline by a school authority figure is not likely to. A sibling who only stops his bullying behavior because he does not wish to receive discipline from school authorities or familial authorities may continue to cause the victim greater harm as the sibling relationship remains damaged. Creating a personal connection between the siblings automatically generates a personal responsibility to treat the other well, rather than accountability to an adult figure for the treatment of the victim sibling.
The management of at least half of the bullying conflicts through peer mediation may provide great benefits to the parties and the school climate. Because the process is student controlled, the students themselves would be empowered with the ability to make changes in bullying behavior, and therefore student tolerance for bullying could be lowered voluntarily. Bullies who successfully understand the perspective of their victims are not only more likely to stop bullying behavior in the future, they are likely to set an example for other students. Bullies are generally students with high self-esteem who are likely to have a following, and therefore are natural student leaders. If a student truly reformed his bullying behavior, he would be in the perfect position to create an attitude of low tolerance for bullying among his peers.
Peer mediation as an opportunity for the victim to have a voice may also lower the attitudes of victims as a whole. Feeling understood by the person who bullied them in the past will cause an attitude of empowerment that is likely to reach beyond the actual mediation session. It prepares students who are at risk of being bullied in the future with ways to better handle such situations if they arise. Being able to effective self-manage situations in which they are being bullied will increase the likelihood that the bullying behavior will stop. Watching a former victim stop a bullying behavior from another person will also create an atmosphere inside the school that the power imbalance can be self managed, possibly promoting the idea of empowerment among other students who have been bullied.
In addition, the peer mediators themselves may walk away from the mediation session with a greater understanding of how to handle a bullying situation and an attitude of lower tolerance for bullying in general. Not only will the mediator, having gained the insight of the perspectives of both parties, be less likely to engage either in bullying or victim behavior later on, they will probably be less likely to witness bullying without having a stronger reaction, either internally or externally. By being a student who doesn’t overlook bullying, the peer mediator acts as another example to his or her peers. This ripple effect of lower tolerance for bullying could improve school climate overall, which is not something that single incident disciplinary action by an adult can achieve. The selection of effective peer mediators would be critical to achieving this effect.
The effects of peer mediator perceptions on the perceptions of the rest of the school will be most effective if the peer mediators are the high status bystanders mentioned earlier in the paper. Because these bystanders have the social status to risk becoming involved in a situation of conflict between high-status and low-status students, they are more likely to make the peer mediation program look “cool”. They are also more likely to be respected by their peers inside the mediation. In addition, once peer mediators, they would be much more likely to report and encourage reporting bullying behavior. Observational studies have shown that peers are a critical, but largely untapped resource in school-based anti-bullying efforts because bullying is an underground activity that adults often miss, while peers are present during most bullying episodes. It is essential that program administrators tap this resource.
Finally, in addition to the benefits described above, peer mediation is a good method to start with because it is never the end of the line for those who have been victimized by bullying. If peer mediation fails to resolve the problem the victim is free to contact school authorities and seek another type of solution. Therefore, it should not be seen as a problematic substitute for school disciplinary systems, but rather a helpful process that makes a good attempt at solving the solution, with the disciplinary systems acting as a safety net of last resort for the peer mediation process.
Peer mediation should not be dismissed as a problematic solution to the bullying crisis because the benefits of peer mediation outweigh the benefits of traditional disciplinary systems. A screening process would be vital to protecting victimized students from a solution which actually causes more harm than healing. The success of the peer mediation program as a solution to bullying also depends on the success of the peer mediation program as a whole, which would necessitate the education and involvement of all school staff, as well as the careful selection of those students who would be most effective as mediators. If run successfully, peer mediation programs could become a vital part of the fight against bullying.