Expert's opinion: Mediate, instead of punish


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CHAMPAIGN — Another suspension isn't going to change the behavior of a student who has already been labeled a repeat offender.

But perhaps a 50-minute conversation will.

That's the logic Centennial High School psychologist and author Ondine Gross claims in her new book, "Restore the Respect: How to Mediate School Conflicts and Keep Students Learning," a training-like manual in the art of mediation, written based on data she has collected in her practice of the restorative exercise at the Champaign high school.

Published by Brookes Publishing Co. in June, "Restore the Respect" explores the various ways mediation can be implemented in the school setting, as a practice supplemental to traditional forms of discipline.

The practice is simple, "a no-brainer" as Gross calls it, that has effectively resolved 82 percent of teacher-student, student-student and adult-adult conflict at Centennial in the last three school years.

Gross learned the conflict-resolution technique when she took a mediation-training course at the local Prairie Land Conflict Mediation Center in Champaign, while she was earning an administrative certification and another master's degree in educational policy and organizational leadership from the University of Illinois in 2010.

Around that time, administrators at Centennial were following national trends of eliminating "zero-tolerance" disciplinary practices — where students who commit certain offenses are automatically slapped with out-of-class discipline. Just last summer, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed legislation into law requiring all school districts to eliminate policies that make out-of-class suspensions an automatic response to certain offenses.

Gross volunteered her expertise and conducted 38 mediations in the 2011-12 school year. During the 2015-16 school year, she ran 83 at the school. Data collected over the course of the last five school years show the majority of mediations conducted at Centennial were successful, meaning there were no additional disciplinary referrals made from the teacher toward the student who participated.

At its roots, Gross calls mediation a "highly structured" conversation, that allows teachers and students to "see one another as humans," she said.

At Centennial, Gross usually receives a mediation request from a teacher or administrator. She'll arrange the session between the two parties and works as a unbiased conversation facilitator during the meeting. She starts with allowing one person to explain why they're there that day and then allows the other person to do the same.

After that, she asks the two to come up with a plan on their own of how best to move forward.

"Everyone comes in, and the playing field is level, and basically the structure is that each person is afforded the dignity to speak without interruption, being heard nonjudgmentally, using reflective listening skills," she said. "The teacher and the student get an opportunity to speak about what's on their mind."

Gross says the practice is effective because generally when there's repeated conflict between a teacher and a student in a classroom, it's because the two haven't had a chance to address the issue in an out-of-class setting. The traditional classroom model isn't conducive for those kinds of conversations, she said.

"The idea is when you have a discussion like this and have the time and space to get to know each other, it expands your perspectives and maybe even generates empathy and understanding that didn't exist before," she said. "It clears the air."

A success at her home school, Gross decided to write the book to help other educators employ the practice in schools across the country, or simply to give folks an alternative method of settling conflict in their personal life.

And at her event at the Champaign Barnes and Noble — where her book will be on sale — at 2 p.m. today, Gross plans to give a 20-minute rundown on the restorative practice as well as answer questions about how it has fit into life at Centennial. Attendees can purchase the book — which has sold well since its release, she said — get it signed by the author and contribute to local public education all at the same time. The school psychologist plans to donate all the author proceeds she makes today to the Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation.

A certified mediator, Gross says anyone can learn to help resolve conflict using this method, as long as they feel competent to employ the principles of mediation.

"It's a great way to remember how to be a good listener and be respectful of others, regardless of background," she said.