Approaching youth violence with
 ACBM – All in the Class Become Mediators

Anatol Pikas

When scrutinising our methods against youth violence we empower them by asking  "What makes it work?". Let us first analyse two approaches in moral education.

Deterrence.  Adults convey rules of civilized behaviour to students and shame them by friendly warnings or threats: their violent approach will lead to restrictions and punishment. The potential offenders are supposed to give in because they anticipate exclusion from the circle of fair-minded and decent people. The distress the punitive measures could cause is considered to be greater than the thrill they feel when being violent.

Encouraging empathy. with the victim is important. Awareness of the sufferings of the victim is invoked in the minds of the students. Stories, eyewitness reports and pictures describe violence. The offenders yield because a basic human empathy is awakened in them.  "What makes it work" is the identification  with the victim. The greater the similarity between offender and victim the greater the potential to feel empathy.

The two approaches outlined above have been practised since time immemorial, backed up by religion. Note that the motives in the students to behave virtuously are elicited by external incentives. This is an inevitable part of moral education. But in times when the mass media provides models for violent behaviour, we need to search more intensively for the offenders’ own internal motivation.

Let us take a look at what I found when I experimented with an experiential learning approach in the 1980’s.

Why did a sudden breakdown occur in constructive communication  exercises?
I prepared teenagers to solve conflicts constructively. All of them agreed that listening to the other side in conflicts is the way to do it. We trained this in triadic role-plays. Students A and B represented different views in a conflict event. Their task was to find a shared solution. A third student, C, was the observer. A and B had made good progress in the task but suddenly a breakdown occurred. Analysis of the process demonstrated that at the moment when the parties perceived the conflict as real, the image of an enemy was released in their minds. This always occurred suddenly.

After a one round, we changed the roles of the players according to a schedule where each had the opportunity to be an observer and to plead for views opposite to their previous role. But neither the identification with the opposite opinion nor the experience of being observer could significantly diminish the sudden breakdown of good intentions.

What occurred here is a widely known phenomenon: it is one thing to pronounce ideals in a calm atmosphere; it is another is to apply them in taxing situations. The point is that this is what we experience when watching school children, and also comes across when dealing with (some of) our fellow men. The same breakdown of good intentions appears at macro level. We have heard about presidents who emphasize the democratic and lawful order prevailing in their country but who endorse usage of "unconventional methods" by interrogating prisoners to get them to confess that they are terrorists. We have noticed churchgoers who in their behaviour verify St Paul’s saying:  "The good that I would, I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do". (Romans, Chap.7,19.). St Paul blamed his "flesh" for his deviation from the good. He was thereby anticipating a mechanism described by the brain physiology of our time: when we are agitated, our good intentions, stored in the cerebral cortex, are overruled by the limbic system (the centre for feelings).

We are all subject to this law of nature. All ideas pronounced by professors of ethics, gurus in constructive communication, etc. –  can only delay our aggressive reactions. We can even, when thinking in peace and quiet, imagine that we ourselves can speak with our provocative antagonist in an objective and peaceful manner. But when the encounter really happens, our good intentions cannot be realised because the antagonist is, obviously, so evil, deceptive etc. NB! Always he or she or they, seldom I or we.

This circumstance became the basis for the search for stronger internal incentives than pronounced moral ideals.

Withdrawal or mediation?
If we want a guaranteed peaceful solution when finding ourselves to be a party in a real conflict two ways remain: either withdraw or employ a mediator. But mediation has to be prepared. Either as an institution or as an established custom in a society that promotes shared solutions. And here begins our operational approach for handling violence – provided that there is an opponent or the other side who could be involved in communication.

As we know, mediation has been used since time immemorial. As with the judge-kings whose decisions became valid because of their power. The problem is that as soon as a mediator tends to judge, his impartiality is endangered. At least in the opinion of the losing party and his friends. Their misbehaviour would turn up again behind the judge’s back.

It is of little use instructing for future mediators that he or she must "always be neutral" because such a command becomes invalid when one of the parties is weak and innocent. But let us move our focus from neutrality to something more dynamic. Let us concentrate mediation  on finding a shared solution between the parties so intensively that investigating and stating guilt become peripheral. In listening to them their autonomous constructive motives are revealed.

Making peer mediation into an instrument supporting democratic principles
A peer mediation movement has existed for decades. It is a  step in the right direction because it means going beyond preaching good norms. Peer mediation deals with conflict resolution in crises.  So it also means going beyond engaging exercises in self confidence.

There is, however, a basic problem with this plausible enterprise. It is that peer mediators are selected from students with high status who are then given special training. This is wrong in two ways. (1) It means violating the principle of democratic equity in human interaction. (2) It causes trouble for those students who have been selected. The trouble is caused by some other students whose status was similar to the selected ones but did not get access to mediation training. Many of them tend to challenge the mediation capacity of the selected students by augmenting or inventing conflicts and asking them to come and mediate.

In the courses the selected peer mediators are told to be strictly neutral. Their attempts to stick to this moral command should not be doubted. However, they have no directions as to what to do when one of the conflict parties appears guilty and the other innocent. Probably they choose to help the victim. But then the mission of mediation is turned to guilt-seeking and applying justice. Probably the school authorities empower their selected peer mediators to manage such situations. In this kind of case, the school system is trapped into conflict escalation. The work of peer mediators has become counterproductive.

I am proposing an alternative that is not afflicted with the potential flaws that I have described. Initially, it consists of two elements: (1) Involving all in the whole class in a mediator education programme which suits already existing syllabi. (2) To replace the mediator’s declarations of his programmatic neutrality with operational means that lead to a neutrality that is a result of action.

The programme “All in the Class Become Mediators” – ACBM
Public school syllabi around the world contain exercises in vernacular language. It is recognised that we mobilise the involvement of students if we deal with topics which involve the students’ self-interest. Conflicts amongst peers is such an area. At an age level where students can master writing essays, they can be given a theme "How to solve conflicts?" The solutions they proposed are then discussed in the class. The teacher reinforces good answers but avoids preaching own rules. The ideas for solutions are sorted into three categories (1) violence, (2) withdrawal and (3) discussions to find a shared solution. A consensus for the desirability of the third alternative is reached. The problem "It is difficult to discuss calmly during a conflict" is recognised. A solution is found: to use a mediator. “Do you want to play mediation?” the teacher asks the class. Usually, the answer is very positive. (If not, the project stops this time.) “But before we play, we need a short study of guidelines of mediation”, the teacher says. As the interest in role-plays is great, the students are willing to read guidelines in an 8 page A5 leaflet.

Abstract of the leaflet: The mediator listens with interest to the views of parties in separate talks and in a relaxed atmosphere. When mutual confidence is achieved, the mediator asks (in a friendly way) about his suggestion which the other side (not yet present) could also accept. If such a proposal for a shared solution is not found, the mediator concedes failure that time. But usually he can elicit constructive proposals so that the final phase – the summit meeting between the parties – can take place.

The students like the idea of mediation, playing it from the beginning to the end. A week or two after the role-plays, a new essay-writing opportunity is arranged. The students are encouraged to write again about conflict resolution and discuss the role of mediator and their own possible attempts at mediating which they have made.
It is evident that not all students can become skilful mediators but there are many benefits when the whole class have had an experiential learning experience of a constructive conflict resolution method. They may employ those friends that they trust as mediators in their conflicts but in this case, their choice is made freely by themselves. When being a client in a mediation process, they know what demands can be put on a mediator. Through experiential learning they have grasped the basics of a conflict resolution process that they may practice and develop in their future lives.

But does ACBM also have any potentials for dealing with violence outside the classroom?

Teenagers have a natural propensity for therapeutic mediation
The idea that ACBM could be developed into an instrument dealing with youth violence cropped up while I was observing teenagers role-playing mediation. The training groups consisted of 14 and 17 year olds, boys and girls. They had passed the introductory period of essay writing about conflict resolution and were discussing the principles of therapeutic mediation. I was struck how quickly and well those boys and girls who played mediators followed my guidelines: success in mediation depends on the quality of your listening to the conflicting parties. Of all age categories on courses in therapeutic mediation, teenagers are the most talented in implementing this message.

Teenagers’ high capacity to listen with empathy to peers is a function of their search for identity during a transitional period of life. It is natural to look for allies amongst those in a similar situation and to form groups. 
An intensive challenge of the capacity of peers is essential in this process: can this person I am meeting now be an interesting and reliable friend?

A teenager understands that a mediator has to be in a relaxed mood but should reinforce even the tiniest contribution from the discussion partner. A therapeutic benefit emerges from concentrated listening.
After the four lectures with ACBM, all teachers have reported that the atmosphere in their classes had “become calmer”. We could well remain satisfied with ACBM as a classroom-atmosphere-improving device, but the therapeutic mediation contains such healing elements that  it is tempting to see if such an approach could be applicable outside the school.

Mediation  is a tool that needs preparation
For a newspaper reader, youth violence appears as the outbursts of young people who are simply evil. For those who have seen causality in the course of events before the violent act occurs, the concept of "evil" disappears. A film by Meadows from 2006, "This is England" makes this evident. Let us examine the scenes that are important to our present reasoning.

The leader of a group of young men in their 20’s is a racist skinhead but is sympathetically inclined to a black boy from an immigrant Jamaican family who is also popular with his fellow gang members. They listen with interest when the Jamaican talks about his big family of warm and friendly people. He gives a friendly invitation to the gang leader to come and taste his Grandma’s cooking.  To begin with, the leader listens to the Jamaican with cordial interest. But gradually there emerges, in his mind, a striking contrast to his own deficit of positive human contacts. The day before he had been finally rejected by a girl who had been in his dreams during his three years prison sentence. His frustration about his own misery is intense finding its violent release in his old idea that "People like him take all the jobs from the English". In his mind the Jamaican assumes the form of an enemy image and triggers his limbic system into aggression. He starts recklessly beating the Jamaican. On realising that his victim is dying, he feels regret and calls an ambulance.

Other gang members who like in the Jamaican are embarrassed but remain passive. Could they have intervened? One of the gang members is bodily stronger than the violent leader. Together Tthey could have stopped him physically without hurting him. Mentally, they could not, because he was their leader.

The award-winning film "This is England" is popular. I have read the reviews in the newspapers. They focus on the circumstance that a 12 year-old boy whose Dad has been killed in the Falklands war is adopted by the gang. The film is seen as a nostalgic trip to 1983. But what about the fact that the film is watched mostly by young people and that gang violence is still an issue?

My explanation is that the film shows that violence amongst them is not a product of a mysterious evil; the bully is seldom a bully in his own eyes. His violence is an outlet for acute unhappiness. Wild outbursts are preferably directed towards material objects like empty buildings. Their social reactions to people are mainly normal and sometimes even polite.

It is very probable that there are social workers and teachers who see the DVD of the film together with young people who are in a similar social situation to those in the film. I believe that they make comments coinciding with those I have made here. Probably also they are looking for approaches that are neither "firm treatment" nor "molly-coddling" unhappy persons with love but aiming at shared solutions.

I am seeking a contact with them. Perhaps they want to hear more about therapeutic mediation? We agree that we cannot do wonders if an attack is evidently unprovoked and the innocence of the victim so evident. But we could make an attempt to find constructive solutions of the mediation-type later, when the situation has calmed down, when the adrenaline stores in their bodies have been emptied.

This kind of intervention has to be prepared. Could role plays in ACBM, together with motivational and explanatory approaches, be an instrument in civilising tensions among frustrated young people?

I leave it to pioneers to release their own constructive creativity. I am open for discussion seeking shared solutions.

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Why a competent user of SCm always succeeds?