Finding 8

Witnesses provided important recommendations for resolving conflicts and addressing bias-based harassment.

Witnesses described many activities and programs that help students resolve conflicts when they do arise. It is important for young people to learn the skills that help them to work through problems without resorting to an escalation of aggression or increase the intensity of conflict. In addition, when conflicts do erupt into more serious acts of hostility or destruction, it is important for schools to have an array of methods at their disposal for restoring the social fabric within their communities.

Peer mediation. According to the written statement of one witness, "[P]eer mediators are students who are specially chosen and trained students who help other students find solutions to their conflicts." This strategy was endorsed by many speakers who recounted their own observations or experiences with successful implementation of peer mediation programs as a means for resolving conflict.

Witnesses spoke about the short and long-term benefits of peer mediation in building positive school cultures, reducing tensions, and preventing escalation of conflict into violence. Peer mediation also teaches students leadership and communication skills that they can use in their families, communities, and careers.

Referring to the District's Imagine 2014 strategic plan, a peer mediator trainer told us, "What do we need going forward? We really need all entities of our community to continue to encourage the school district to maintain peer mediation far beyond 2014. If we want our children to be successful in the 21st century, they need to know how to be problem solvers. They need to know how to communicate, and they need to know how to resist the temptations that exist out there. The three-day peer mediation training they receive allows them to acquire those skills. These are skills that will work in the school, in the home. They will work in any aspect of life that we want them to be successful with."

Reporting and investigating bullying and harassment. It became clear to the Commission during the hearings that accurate reporting and follow-up investigations of incidents of bullying and harassment are vital if students are to feel supported.

Following the eruptions of violence in December 2009 at South Philadelphia High School, the school leadership has worked to establish a number of detailed procedures to ensure violent incidents are not ignored.

Beginning in the 2010-2011 school year, the school has publicized its own, understandable explanations of what bullying and harassment are, and given explicit information about how students and staff should respond to incidents that they see or experience.

The comments of the principal of South Philadelphia High about what he is doing provide an example of what other schools might do to address bullying and harassment: "I have a single point of contact for students, and we've made it very clear to them that if you see something [that shouldn't be happening], do something, or report it... [M]ake sure that it is reported. And making it clear from every single person from the custodial staff up to my office, if you witness something, that must be reported, and that we make sure that we conduct a thorough investigation and we determine if there is an issue of harassment or bullying."

He also has taken care to address language access issues. "We make sure that we contact parents. We've had many key people in my building trained in using language hotlines, so that way, when we have to communicate with parents, that the language issues don't get in the way."

Restorative justice approach to school discipline and conflicts. Multiple witnesses testified about the importance of using a restorative justice approach that enables two conflicting parties to work together to solve their problems. They spoke about the positive impact of restorative practices for creating dialogue between those who engage in aggressive behavior and their victims, and to help the aggressor understand the impact of his or her actions, not just against the individual, but also against the community.

Restorative practices work with those who violate the school's norms of coexistence to develop new skills for dealing with similar situations, and also give the victim an opportunity to provide input into the aggressor's accountability.

A high school student and youth organizer told us how the practice is being used in schools: "Recently, I was introduced to something called restorative justice. Restorative justice is an alternative to being suspended, being expelled, and getting kicked out of class. For example, if students get kicked out or are getting ready to have a fight, the two parties will sit down and each one will have a chance to talk about their side of the situation. This gives the students the opportunity to address the issues between them and figure out a way to solve their problems."

The director of an organization that partners with schools on conflict resolution described the theory behind restorative justice: "[R]estorative justice is a philosophy of justice that focuses on the human impact of an offense. Its primary focus is to identify how individuals and groups have been harmed, what their needs are, and provide a forum to address those needs. Restorative justice is grounded in principles that recognize harm as an act committed against actual individuals and groups... Punishment alone is not an effective deterrent to crime. There is a necessity that the offending person is supported and provided the competencies to become [a better person] than they were prior to the offense."