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Racial Conflict Simulation:
A High School Halloween Party

Ana's Scenario

Part One: Dealing with the Immediate Situation

Things to think about: (Note: Not all of the answers to the questions are given in the story. You will need to fill in details using your background knowledge of similar circumstances and your imagination. Also, please be aware that we did not have enough money when we built this to write different stories depending on how you answer. So if you are the principal, for example, you may say that you want to mediate, but then read on to find out that the principal did not choose to mediate. Please don't think we are ignoring you or that the principal or the story is "stupid." We had to make people do some "stupid" things, or else there would not have been a conflict for you to puzzle over. Stick with it, and decide what you should do at each step along the way, even if some of the "turns" could have been avoided, had we "listened to you in the first place." You will get feedback on your answers when you turn this in to your instructor.)

  1. Who are the parties involved in the conflict so far? (List them in the box below.)

  2. What do you think their interests might be? (List them to the right of their names, below.) (Click here for more information on parties.)

  3. What do you think their interests might be? (List them to the right of their names, below.) (Click here for information on "interests.")

    List parties here:List their interests here:
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  4. Do you think this might be a mediatable situation? (Click here to read about "ripeness," a mediation term which relates to the question of whether a dispute is likely to be negotiable or not.)

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  5. If you were to become involved, what would your interests be?

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  6. What, if anything, do you think you should do about this conflict now? (Click here for information about how expert civil rights mediators plan their intervention.)

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Part Two: Rising Tensions

You first hear about the problems at Agnew High School from a friend of a friend, an assistant principal at the school. He tells you the story of the blackface photos, but adds that they were only the tip of the iceberg. He explains that racial tension has been growing at Agnew for years, and that it has been largely ignored. The students have split down racial lines, and it seems that every year there are more fights and harassment between the groups.

In your work, you focus on mediating racial conflicts, and you have dealt with situations like this one before. You ask your friend if George Edwards, the principal at Agnew, would be interested in mediation. He tells you that Principal Edwards may need some convincing, but that it would be worth the effort.

You call the local branch of the NAACP to get some background on the conflict. They tell you that there has been racial tension at the school, off and on, for decades, but that they've never seen it this bad. You don't hear anything else about Agnew until the local liberal weekly publishes a series of articles on the race problems at the school. One of the articles is on a group of students and parents -- mostly minorities -- who are attempting to get Principal Edwards fired. It seems to you that the conflict is ripe for mediation.

You are about to call Agnew yourself, when the assistant principal calls you. He says that he has spoken with Principal Edwards, and that while the man is a little wary, he'll talk to you Wednesday afternoon. "This is good," you think, but you'd like to talk with the parents and students of color very soon, as well.

You meet the principal on Wednesday. He tells you:

I realize how wrong it was for those students to dress up in blackface, but I can't allow students to cause disturbances. The pep rally could have gotten out of control, and someone could have gotten hurt. If they wanted to protest, they could have used another means, such as writing an article in the school newspaper or picketing. Plus, although I often agree with her, Sara, the dance team captain, has always been a troublemaker. She is outspoken and often hostile in class. I understand that the blackface photos were entirely unacceptable. I am not racist and neither is most of the student body. I'm not really sure how much you can do here.

Questions to think about:

  1. What questions do you have for Principal Edwards?

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  2. Do you think mediation is right for this situation? (Click here for background information on mediation.)

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  3. How are you going to convince him to try mediation? Or are you? (To see how other civil rights mediators try to encourage parties to mediate, click here.)



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You tell the principal that he really has nothing to lose by going through the mediation process. You ask him to think through his options carefully. The parent group wants him fired, and while they may not succeed, they could make his life very difficult. You say that while the mediation will take some time, it won't cost the school any money, and if it doesn't work, then he can try another approach. He will not "lose control" or relinquish any of his authority, she explains, because mediators do not make any decisions; only the parties do. So he will not be forced to do anything or agree to anything that he doesn't think is right. He seems impressed by your experience with similar cases and your apparent competence, and he agrees to try mediation if you are the mediator. "I doubt it will be very useful, however," he cautions.

You ask the principal to tell you who else is involved in this situation. Who does he think you should talk to? He suggests that you talk to some of the other teachers, including the teacher-sponsor of the dance team. He also suggests that you talk to the students and parents who are upset about racism at Agnew (a small minority, he says), some of the other students of color who seem to be doing just fine at Agnew (this is a much larger group, he says, and he gives you some names), and some of the white students, including Matt and Jeff, the two boys who started this whole fray by posting the blackface pictures. "Be sure, also, to talk to Brian," he says. "He's the student body president, and is seen to be a leader of the whole school, not just white students. Everybody likes him and respects him, and he seems to have a pretty good sense of what is going on around here."

More questions to think about:

  1. Do you think these are the right people to talk to? (Click here for advice.)

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  2. Is there anyone else you want to talk to?

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  3. Does the order in which you talk to people matter?

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  4. What are you going to ask them? Tell them? (Click here to read about typical assessment questions mediators often ask.)

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  5. Are you going to try to convince them to mediate? Why or why not?

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  6. If so, what are you going to do if one (or more) is reluctant? (Click here for advice.)

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Part Three: Considering Options

You hear that Sara's group has started calling themselves Citizens Against Racism at Agnew, or CARA. You call the assistant principal who initially contacted you about this case, and he puts you in touch with Sara's parents. You talk to them for a long time, explaining to them that Principal Edwards is interested in participating in a mediation process, but that you will need CARA to participate, too. You explain the mediation process, saying that all of the participating parties will identify the issues involved in this conflict, create an agenda for addressing them, and hopefully come to an agreement. Along the way, you hope that all of the participating parties will learn to communicate more effectively with each other, and better understand the conflict. You also hope that the parties will be able to identify areas of common ground. Sara's parents are interested, and invite you to CARA's next meeting. A few days later, you meet the members of CARA at Sara's house. Your first question is how they think the conflict started. Sara is the first to speak. She says:

When I saw those pictures, I felt sick. It would have been one thing if it were just one incident, but we've put up with a lot. I've been called a "nigger" several times, but when I tell a teacher about it, nothing happens. A couple of guys on the football team think that it's funny to make racist jokes and pinch black girls' butts. When they do stuff like that in class, nobody stands up to them, including the teachers. They're just told to settle down. Plus, the curriculum at this school is a joke. We spent months talking about the Holocaust, but they just glossed over slavery. I feel like nobody will listen to me, or cares about my history or my concerns. The principal told me to write a letter to the school newspaper, but that was just a way to shut me up — nobody reads that thing. I'm not sorry for what I did, even if I did get suspended. It was the only way that I could get people to pay attention to what I had to say. But, I wasn't allowed to make up any homework or tests from the time I was gone, and now my grades are suffering. We shouldn't have to get our grade points reduced to get attention.

More students and parents stand up and talk. Most of the people at the meeting are minorities. They weren't friends before the conflict started, but have banded together to try to make themselves heard. They say that Agnew has a history of racist incidents. Many of them didn't occur while Principal Edwards was in charge, but Principal Edwards hasn't done much to change things. In fact, he and the rest of the administration have been completely unreceptive to any complaints. They tend to treat complaints as if the students are just trying to get attention. The administration is willing to make superficial changes like a corny "diversity day," but they are unwilling to make any deep changes. You listen for more than an hour, as people voice their frustrations.

Finally, you ask them what they want to do about these problems. Sara says that the only solution that she can think of is to fire the principal and hire someone more sympathetic. The rest of the group agrees.

Questions to Consider:

  1. Can you think of other options? (Click here for advice.)

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  2. Which would you select, and why?

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  3. What do you say to CARA at this point?

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You nod, and ask whether firing Principal Edwards is the best option to take right now. You point out that it's possible that another racist principal would be hired, and that they would then be right back where they started. You suggest that they first try to work with Principal Edwards to change some of his policies, and if that fails, then they can try to get him fired. They agree to pursue mediation. You ask them who else they think you should talk to, and who should be involved in the mediation. They tell you that the administration needs to be involved, though they will feel awkward if Principal Edwards is there.

"We won't feel free to say what we think about him if he is there," Sara explains.

More questions to consider:

  1. How do you respond to this?


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  3. Do you think Principal Edwards should be involved in the mediation?

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They also suggest that you talk with other students and parents of color, and Brian, the student body president, who, though white, is a "good guy."

Part Four: Getting Organized

You still have one party that you would like to participate in the mediation: the white students and parents at Agnew. Both Principal Edwards and Sara said Brian, the student body president, would be a good person to talk to. You contact Brian, and he invites you to the next student council meeting. As with CARA, you ask the council how they think the conflict started. Brian stands up and says:

I was at the party on Halloween and I think the guys who took those pictures are idiots. They in no way represent the majority of the white kids at this school. Still, I don't really know what the big deal is about the photos. I like Sara, but I think she and the dance team are being too politically correct. Now, everybody is in a big uproar over nothing. I hate going to school because it's gotten so tense. We can't even have a discussion in class without things getting out of control. We've always had "cliques," but now the racial lines are much stronger and hostile. I wish Sara hadn't made this into such a big issue.

The rest of the council agrees with him. You say that you have spoken to Sara and the other members of CARA, and that they are very angry, and have been for a long time. They are going to start discussions with Principal Edwards on how to address their concerns. However, you say that you think it's very important that the white students at Agnew also have a say in the discussions. You ask them whether they — or anyone else they know — would like to be involved. Brian volunteers, along with two of the other kids on the council. Brian also suggests some friends of his who have voiced an interest in doing something about the conflict. You suggest that some of the parents be invited too. In addition, Brian suggests that you talk to Matt and Jeff, the boys responsible for the blackface photos. "But I doubt they'll agree to participate," Brian says. "They still think that this is all a ridiculous over-reaction. They aren't sorry about it at all, I don't think."

You meet with Jeff and Matt a few days later. They are both popular at Agnew, because they are outspoken class clowns. This is, by far, your least productive meeting. Both Jeff and Matt are incredibly polite during the meeting. They say that they had no idea what kind of trouble they would cause with those photos, and they want to do everything in their power to fix it. But during the meeting, they keep mumbling under their breath to each other and laughing. As they walk out, you overhear Jeff say, "This is going to be so lame."

Questions to Think About:

  1. How do you decide who's going to participate in the mediation? (Click here for advice.)

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  2. Do you think it's a good idea for Matt and Jeff to be involved? Why or why not?

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  3. If so, how do you think you can get them to take it seriously? (Click here for some stories about this kind of problem.)

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  4. What are you going to do to prepare for the mediation? (For suggestions, click here.)

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  5. What are your goals for this intervention? (Click here for stories about how other mediators set goals.)

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Part Five: Preparing for Mediation

To prepare for the mediation, you start with shuttle diplomacy, talking to each group separately, finding out what they think the issues are in this conflict. You run into your first problem when you tell Sara that Matt and Jeff are going to be involved in the mediation. "Well, if they are involved," Sara says, "count me out. Anything they are involved in will be a total waste of time!" It takes a while, but you are eventually able to convince Sara that for the mediation to be effective, it will be necessary to have as many different viewpoints represented as possible. You assure her that you will control the situation, and that Matt and Jeff will not "misbehave."

You help each group put together a list of issues and suggested ways of responding to those issues. You also ask them to plan an "opening statement" that summarizes these issues and suggested solutions clearly and succinctly. You urge them to be open about their concerns and frustrations, but to frame them in a constructive way, as much as possible.

Questions to consider:

  1. Given what you know now, what would you say are the issues of concern to each of the parties? (Click here for information on identifying issues.)

    1. Sara

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    2. CARA

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    3. Principal Edwards

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    4. Brian

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    5. Matt and Jeff

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    6. You

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  2. Do you see any areas of common ground?

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  3. How would you suggest that each of these parties reframe their concerns to make them most constructive? (To learn more about reframing, see this reframing essay and these comments by experienced civil rights mediators.)

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    2. CARA

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    3. Principal Edwards

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    4. Brian

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    5. Matt and Jeff

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    6. You

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  4. What else do you think you need to do with the parties to prepare them for mediation? (For information about what other civil rights mediators do, click here.)

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  5. Are there other preparations that you, yourself need to make?

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  6. What are your goals for this mediation? (For more information on goal-setting, see this article.)

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  7. Is power an issue in this mediation? If so, do you need to address it in any way? (Click here to read about how experienced civil rights mediators deal with power disparities.)

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  8. How are you going to structure the mediation?

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Part Six: Mediation Begins

You bring everyone together the following week. After thanking everyone for coming, you again explain what mediation is and how it works. You then ask the parties to help draft some ground rules for the process.

Things to think about:

  1. What things do you want to be sure to cover in your opening statement?

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  2. What ground rules do you think are important? (Click here for advice. Also see the Ground Rules essay on BeyondIntractability.org.)

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  3. What will you do if they do not come up with these on their own?

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They do pretty well setting reasonable ground rules, which is good for two reasons. First, they have some good ground rules in place, and those ground rules will have more credibility because the parties developed them themselves (instead of them being imposed by you); second, they have learned early on that they can work together and agree on something.

You then explain that the next step in the process is for each group to present what they believe are the issues in the conflict. You ask Sara to speak first. She presented a slightly modified version of what she told you earlier, explaining that the blackface pictures were extremely offensive, but were only "the tip of the iceberg." She tells of other racial incidents that she and her friends have experienced, and says that neither the teachers nor the administration at Agnew seem to care. In addition, she says she feels like "a nobody" in this school. "All the history is white history; all the literature is white literature. It's like people of color don't even exist here," she said.

You then ask Sara what changes she would like to see made in order to address these problems. She answers that she and other CARA members would like complaints about racism to be taken more seriously, and the perpetrators to be harshly punished. She also wants black and Latino history to take a much more prominent role in history classes. Finally, she says, a much higher number of minority students are being suspended than white students, and students of color are being punished more often and more harshly overall than are white students. "This discrimination must stop," she asserts.

When Sara is finished, other members of CARA get up and speak. People talk about a history of racism at Agnew, beginning when the school was integrated in the '60s and continuing to the present. After awhile, the discussion begins to stray onto racism in the wider city -- things like racial profiling and police brutality. You begin to get worried when you catch a glimpse of Principal Edwards. He looks noticeably irritated, and is tapping his fingers on the table.

"Can we move on? These comments are irrelevant," Principal Edwards suddenly blurts out. You cringe. This is not going well.

Sara's mom quickly stands up.

"You see, this is exactly the problem," she says. "You won't listen to a word we say. Even now that we've finally gotten your attention, you're trying to shut us up. There is a problem in this school and in this city, and you need to face up to it."

"Look, I'm sorry I said that," he answers. "Of course, I want to deal with anything that's bothering you; that's my job. But the things you're bringing up happened before I became principal at Agnew, and the issue of racism in the police department is nothing I have control over. I want to make changes, but I do not want to endlessly rehash past events. There's nothing anyone can do to change those things. Plus, how can we know how much of what you're saying is true? There is no way to verify these stories."

Sara stands up and begins yelling. Soon, more people are standing and yelling. The students and parents of color say that they need to be heard. The white students and parents say that they just want to "get on with things."

You let this go on for a few minutes, and then call a recess. You ask everyone to come back in 30 minutes.

Questions to consider:

  1. What is the role of emotion in conflict?

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  2. Should you have allowed this much anger to be expressed during the mediation? (Click here for information on dealing with anger in the mediation process, and click here for information on anger and anger management more generally.)

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  3. Would it have helped if the principal had suppressed his anger more than he did?

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  4. Could you have done anything to improve the situation, or was that not your role?

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While the group is on break, you meet separately with Principal Edwards and Sara's family. To Principal Edwards, you explain that the members of CARA have been frustrated for a long time, and that they need a chance to express that frustration. You tell him that you'll limit how long they can talk, but you also caution him that only if they feel heard will they be ready to move on to the problem solving stage of the process. Principal Edwards says that he is willing to try again, and that he didn't realize that this was part of the process. You tell Sara's parents that Principal Edwards is willing to continue the dialogue if CARA is. You explain to them that Principal Edwards is so used to trying to solve problems quickly, that he was frustrated with just listening. They say that they are willing to try the dialogue, but only if they are really listened to.

When everybody reconvenes, CARA says that they are done speaking. You then ask Brian, the student body president, to explain his view of the situation. He says:

We strongly disagree with the photos that were taken on Halloween. Those photos in no way represent how the majority of the students or parents at the school feel. Still, I feel that we need to let that incident go. It was a one-time thing. The boys who did it have apologized, and now it is time to move forward. The tension at Agnew has gotten out of control. We've always had "cliques," but now the racial lines are much stronger and hostile. I think it's time to do something about this.

When you ask him what he thinks should be done to improve the situation, he says that he doesn't know, but that he thinks maybe some more multi-racial activities might be good. He also says that he is open to any other ideas that come up during the discussion, but that he doesn't have anything more to add at this point.

You then ask Principal Edwards to explain his view of the situation:

I realize how wrong it was for those students to dress up in blackface, but my hands are tied. I can't punish students for incidents that occur off of school grounds. Ultimately, I agree with the sentiments that the dance team expressed, but I can't allow students to cause disturbances. The pep rally could have gotten out of control, and someone could have gotten hurt. If they wanted to protest, they could have used another means, such as writing an article in the school newspaper or picketing. Although I understand that the blackface photos were entirely unacceptable, it was only one incident caused by a couple of misguided kids.

I appreciate the concerns of the students and parents of color, but I do not believe that their assertions are correct. We take great care in handing out discipline fairly. While it is true that students of color are suspended more often than others, that is because they violate school rules more often than others. We do cover black and Latino history in our history classes as much as we have time for, given all of the other requirements, and we take racism very seriously in this school. That is why we are doing this mediation, as a matter of fact.

The CARA parents sigh loudly in disgust with that statement, but don't start yelling again.

Once everyone is finished talking, you thank them again for coming, and for hanging in when the going got difficult. "It is always hard to listen to things you don't agree with," you say, "but we need to do that in order to be able to work together. Over time, hopefully we'll begin to see things in more similar ways." Since it is late, you suggest that the meeting be adjourned, and commence again the following week.

Things to think about:

  1. Can you suggest ways in which CARA and/or Principal Edwards could reframe their statements, to make them better received and/or understood by the others? Is this something you should encourage them to do? (To learn more about reframing, see this essay and these comments by experienced civil rights mediators.)

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  2. In the following week's meeting, the parties will begin to address everyone's concerns. Do you have any ideas about how they should do that?

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Part Seven: Fact-Finding

A week later, you all meet again in the same room. People still seem on edge, but you take control quickly. You review the key concerns of each group, reframing some of them to make them more palatable and understandable to the other side. Each time you go over one side's list, you ask whether they agree with your restatement of their concerns and suggestions, and they discuss each one until everyone is in agreement.

The only issue that cannot be agreed upon is the one dealing with unequal discipline. The administration insists that discipline is handled fairly, while CARA is certain that it is not. So you suggest hiring an outside, neutral expert to investigate the question. There is considerable discussion about who to get to do the research. You suggest a consultant who has worked with you on other cases, and everyone agrees that person would be acceptable to them. You say that you will give her a call. "Usually, she can get started pretty soon," you assure them.

Questions to consider:

  1. What does a fact-finding consultant need to do to make his or her findings credible to both sides? (See this set of essays for more general information on fact-finding.)

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  2. Are there other approaches to fact-finding, besides hiring an outside consultant? What are they?

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  3. Are there other facts in this case that ought to be investigated further by a consultant or other fact-finding method? If so, what?

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  4. How might you design a fact-finding effort on that/those topic(s)?

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Part Eight: Brainstorming Options

The outside expert comes back with the results of her research, and says that discipline does seem to be pretty evenly distributed between racial groups at the school. Nevertheless, she suggests, more might be done to involve students and parents in the disciplinary process, perhaps thereby giving it more credibility.

You suggest that the group consider that option, along with others. "Now that the problems have been identified and analyzed, the next step is to consider options for resolving the identified problems. There are two ways we can do this," you explain. "We can all work together, taking each issue, one at a time. Or we could break into subgroups, and have each subgroup work intensely on one set of issues."

You discuss the pros and cons of each approach, and pretty quickly decide that the subgroup approach would be more efficient.

You suggest that they divide into working groups to develop options for a variety of problems. These problems include:

  1. Discipline: How discipline can be carried out in both a fair way, and in a way that is viewed as fair by all of the parties involved.

  2. Understanding: How inter-racial understanding can be improved at the school.

  3. Curriculum: How the curriculum can be modified so that students of color feel as if they are included in the curriculum.

  4. Response: How the school should respond to future racial incidents, if and when they occur.

Everyone agrees, and chooses working groups.

Questions to consider:

What options can you identify for each one of these questions (think of as many options as possible, without making value judgments).

(For help, see Option Identification.)
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  2. Understanding:

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  3. Curriculum:

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  4. Response:


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Part Nine: Assessing Options

After the working groups brainstorm lists of options, you ask each group to discuss the costs and benefits of each option and to come up with a preferred option, along with a second choice to present to the larger group. This proves to be a difficult task, as people assess the likely costs and benefits of the options very differently. For example, one option suggested by people in the curriculum subgroup is to greatly decrease the emphasis on white migration to and expansion through America in U.S. history and literature courses, and spend much more time focusing on Native American, Hispanic, and African American history, and the role of heroes and writers of color in shaping the United States and its literature. White parents oppose this suggestion, saying that it would cost a lot of money because it would require the purchase of new books and additional training for teachers. The white parents also fear that emphasis would come at the expense of teaching the material that would be tested on standardized tests, therefore jeopardizing their students' chances of getting into top colleges and/or getting advanced placement credit from standardized "AP" or "IB" tests. After several weeks, however, and some consultations with district financial officers, all of the groups are able to come up with a list of preferred and secondary options to bring forward to the whole group.

Do your best to assess the costs and benefits of each of the options you listed above.

(For assistance, see Costing.)

  1. Discipline:

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  2. Understanding:

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  3. Curriculum:

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  4. Response:

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Part Ten: Another Incident

After school on Thursday, when most of the students have left for the day, a group of white students and a group of Latino students start yelling at each other in the halls. As the fight escalates, one of the Latino students flashes a knife. The school police officers have left for the day, but a security guard sees the exchange on the security cameras and rushes in. With the help of a janitor, he breaks up the fight quickly, but due to his inexperience, he uses too much force. He maces several of the students and the janitor manhandles several others. No one is seriously hurt, but many suffer minor injuries, some from the fight itself, and others from the security guard's and janitor's actions.

When news of the fight gets out, parents and students on both sides are outraged. White parents say the school isn't doing enough to protect students from dangerous "gangs." They point out that this is the second weapon found in the school this year. On the other hand, the Latino parents say that white students are repeatedly ambushing and attacking their children. They complain that when fights break out, the authorities either treat both sides as if they had an equal part in starting the fight, or they treat the Latinos like the aggressors. The Latino parents have been unaware of the mediation. Most of them speak only Spanish and are not very aware of events or activities going on at the school.

When you reconvene the mediation group the next day, everyone is angry. The white parents are angry, because they feel like their students are no longer safe at school. The minority parents are angry, because they feel like their students were never safe at school. The students are angry, because their parents are angry. Principal Edwards feels stuck in the middle, which makes him angry. Whenever the group tries to start a discussion, it breaks down into yelling. Soon, several people are crying. You call a break.

Questions to Consider:

  1. How can you regain control? (Click here for suggestions. More information on de-escalation can also be found here.)

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  2. Has yesterday's incident changed your goals at all?

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  3. What needs to be done differently now?

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While everyone is on break, you meet with some of the group members individually and try to calm them down. When the group reconvenes, you remind everyone why you are all there, and of the ground rules that you set in the first session. You begin the dialogue again, but there is still a lot of tension in the room. Everyone decides that they should invite some of the Spanish-speaking parents to the next meeting, and hire a translator so that those parents can participate.

Question:

  • Is there anything more that you might be able to do, to defuse the tension and try to get people working together in a positive way? (For suggestions, click here.)

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Part 11: Restoring Confidence

At the next meeting, four of the Spanish-speaking families show up. You ask them to tell their stories. One woman says that her sons were attacked by a group of white students the previous year, and beaten with baseball bats. They managed to call for help on a cell phone before anyone was seriously hurt, but she says that they have had problems since they started at Agnew. She says that in that case, which occurred outside of school, her sons were treated as the aggressors. Several other women from the group tell similar stories.

Principal Edwards looks deeply disturbed. He asks the women a lot of questions about the incidents. Then, he sits quietly for several moments. He tells the women that he feels awful that their children were treated so badly. He apologizes to them. When he has finished speaking, the tension has dissipated a bit.

That night, some parents and students from both sides gather for a spontaneous candlelight vigil on the lawn in front of the school. People make speeches about promoting harmony at Agnew, and learning to listen to each other. Although only a small group attends the vigil, the event is widely publicized. On the front page of the newspaper the next morning, there are lovely pictures of the vigil, instead of the usual stories of the latest crisis at Agnew.

Questions to Consider:

  1. Apology is a powerful tool for reconciling parties in conflict. What elements are needed for an apology to be effective (For information on apologies, click here.)

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  2. Can you think of anything that you should have done differently in this session?

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Part Twelve: The Walkout

Once the working groups come up with their first and second choice options, you reconvene the full group, and ask that each group present their options -- along with their cost and benefit assessment -- to the whole group. As the presentations are being made, you notice Sara watching Matt and Jeff, the two white students who took and posted the blackface pictures. Matt has been staring into space, and Jeff's head has been bobbing as he fights off sleep.

"Why are you two here?" Sara asks them. "I never wanted you involved in the first place, because I thought you would treat this whole process as a joke. You've treated this whole thing as if it's unimportant. I don't think you've heard a word anybody has said. You've only come to less than fourth of the meetings. I don't feel like I can talk to you. I don't understand why you agreed to participate in this. Why don't you just leave? Nobody cares if you're here."

The room is silent. Neither Matt nor Jeff knows how to respond. They stare at Sara blankly. Then they look at you for guidance.

"I guess that's a fair question," you say. "Why did you two agree to participate in the mediation?"

"We want to do everything we can to make up for what we did," Matt says.

"That's not true," Sara says. "I've heard you say things at school. You think that I'm overreacting. You don't think what you did was that bad. But you are the ones who started this whole thing. If you can't understand what's going on here, then I don't have any hope of this conflict ever being resolved."

After another silence, Jeff begins to talk again.

"Fine, if you want to push the issue, which you always seem to want to do, I don't understand why we're here either. I hate sitting around, talking about my feelings all day. It's like those corny games you play at summer camp. And you're wrong. I do understand why what I did was wrong. But you're also right. I do think you're overreacting. You're always playing the victim, Sara. I didn't beat anyone with a baseball bat. I just did something I thought would be funny that you and your friends didn't think was so funny."

Sara flashes back, "That's your problem, Jeff. You can't seem to understand that anyone in the world has a different perspective from yours. You make those stupid jokes in class, and you have no idea what you're talking about, what the history is behind what you're saying."

"That's kind of true," Brian says meekly. "You haven't really participated in this, Jeff."

"This is B.S.," Jeff says, standing up. "If you want me to leave, then I'll leave."

Matt looks confused, but after a few minutes, he follows Jeff, and they both walk out.

The two boys don't come back to mediation. You speak to them, but they insist that they will not return, that it is "a waste of time." You report this to the rest of the group, but they want to continue without Matt and Jeff. They were not contributing anything, and there are still enough white students involved to make the process meaningful.

Questions to Consider:

(Click here for more information.)
  1. Do you think Sara should have targeted Matt and Jeff?

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  2. Was there a better way to do it, that would have been more effective?

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  3. Is there anything you could have done to get them to return? (For suggestions, click here.)

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  4. Is there anything you could have done to de-escalate the situation before Matt and Jeff walked out? Afterwards? (Click here to read about de-escalation.)

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  5. Do you think their presence in the mediation mattered one way or the other?

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  6. What goals does this mediation need to fulfill in order for you to feel that it's successful? (To see how other mediators measure "success," click here.)

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Part Thirteen: Conclusion

After six months of hard work, the group manages to reach a conclusion, upon which everyone agrees. A new disciplinary committee is to be formed, made up of administrators, teachers, parents, and students, who will review disciplinary issues and trends on an ongoing basis. More cross-racial activities will be encouraged, and the English and history curricula will be examined, in an effort to identify more material about or written by people of color. No firm decision is made about how much of this to include or what to cut, but the group agrees to continue to investigate options, and to make suggestions to the school and the school board before textbook orders are placed for the following year.

In addition, CARA managed to get a grant from a private donor to establish an ombudsman office and a peer mediation program at Agnew. You hope that these programs will reduce the perception of racism at Agnew and help to diminish the tension between students. Finally, as a group, you have put together a statement about Agnew's commitment to respect and diversity, which you hope will help guide future programs and decisions.

Each working group agrees to write part of a report, which assesses the problems identified in the mediation, and describes the options considered and ultimately chosen for addressing those problems. The groups are given two weeks to do this, the reports are circulated, and changes are suggested. You compile everything into a draft final report, which you distribute to the entire group. You review it carefully, and feel that it is fair and well-done. The group meets one last time, and after suggesting a few minor changes, everyone agrees to sign off on it. Principal Edwards schedules an all-school assembly for the beginning of the following week, to present the report to the school body. He also sends out a note to all parents and a letter to the city newspaper, explaining the process and giving an Internet URL where the report will be posted online. Everyone goes out to dinner together after this final meeting, and the atmosphere is warm and celebratory.

For you, the most important result of the mediation process has been increasing the communication between the white students and parents, the administration, and the members of CARA. While communication was almost non-existent before the mediation, they now feel comfortable talking to each other. When you visit Agnew two years later, everything is still not perfect, but there are some major improvements. The number of fights has decreased substantially, and the minority population has risen after Agnew lost its reputation as a racist school. Principal Edwards recently received the award for principal of the year for the entire state. The tension in the halls is gone. All in all, you are satisfied with the process.


Copyright © 2000-2007
by Conflict Management Initiatives and the Conflict Information Consortium at the University of Colorado