Empowerment of Student Groups

Stephen Thom

CRS Mediator, Los Angeles Office

[Full Interview]

I got a call about a riot in a school in Long Beach. The principal says, "Steve, I need you now." I said, "I can't come now. I'm tied up." And she said, "But we've just had a riot, this racial group and that racial group fought on campus during lunch and I don't know what to do. We've suspended so many, but the students are coming back soon. We've still got a lot of tension." I actually prescribed a strategy over the phone to the principal. We talked every evening about where we were. I tell this story all the time because it's amazing. I talk about it in terms of how we can trust kids and when they give their word they mean it. When problems occur, we've got to figure out ways to really empower students to be a part of the solution. What I told this principal was, "Do you know the players, do you know the real players that were involved in this altercation?" She said, "Yes, between the counselors and security, we know who the players are." I said, "Okay, bring them in, one by one. Tell them, you need their help. Tell them 'I want to make sure that we bring this school back together, and I need your help. Will you help me?' You're the principal of the school." And she said, "Oh yeah, just bring them in one by one?" I said, "Yes, see if you can get them to support you." "What happens if they don't?" she asked. "Keep them on suspension."So I called her that evening and she said, "Steve, every one of them gave their word. It's amazing, these are great kids." I said, "Yeah, they are. Have you never met them before?" She said, "Now what do I do?" I said, "Ok, they're keeping their word, they're helping to keep things calm?" She said, "Yeah they are, but I don't think I can just leave it like this." I said, "Now that they've made a commitment to you, you can bring them together as a group. So bring the Samoan kids in. Remind them they've already made their commitment, that they've individually given their word so that peer pressure doesn't take them to another level. Then talk to them about how we need you all to control not only yourselves as individuals, but also others to help diffuse the tension here. Then bring in the other group and do the same thing." So she talked to them and she said, "They all agree, we're all on the same page. Things are still okay." I said, "You still have some kids on suspension?" "Well, they're coming in," she said, "they're giving me their word." I said, "Ok, you're moving along. Now, you need to decide when, but at some point we can bring them together and we can get them to figure out what the issues are, and to problem solve it and come to some solution on this. Are you comfortable with that?" This is about a week into it. She says, "Well, they've kept their word so far, and I've gotten to know them, and I know the leadership pretty well and they really are working with me." I said, "Then you're ready, bring them together. Let's go." So I did it all on the phone over a series of a week. She and a couple of counselors worked through that whole process with the kids. We did it by phone. There's just no way I could have been there.