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The Art of Undoing Violence Is Finding Its Own Place In Classrooms and Streets

FOR many communities, violence is a fact of life. But across the country, educators and local leaders are launching programs to teach children and families new ways to resolve conflict.

Helen Swan, a Kansas City, Mo., social worker and the creator of a conflict-resolution curriculum used in more than 100 schools, says, ``Over the last three years, many schools have initiated anti-violence programs from kindergarten through high school. A lot of state departments of education have mandated programs. When I started doing workshops six years ago, it was difficult to get school systems interested.''

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But over the last decade growing violence has touched all levels of society. The United States Department of Justice estimates that 100,000 children take guns to school every day. Another 160,000 stay home out of fear. Homicide by firearms among all US teenagers increased by 61 percent from 1979 to 1989. According to the American Medical Association, deaths of black males by firearms increased 233 percent in US cities.

In New York more than 100,000 weapons were found by metal-detecting equipment in courthouses last year. Former US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said in 1992 that US society was ``so numbed by . . . the prevalence of violence as to seemingly accept it as inevitable.''

At least 10 national organizations offer mediation programs. Their objective: to teach children and adults that peaceful conflict resolution is a much better choice than violence:

* In New York City last year, a violence-prevention program in 100 schools is credited with reducing classroom fights by 71 percent.

* Created by Deborah Prothrow-Stith, assistant dean at the Harvard School of Public Health, an interactive course called ``Violence Prevention Curriculum for Adolescents'' is used by schools in 400 cities.

* In Chicago, a three-tier violence-prevention course involving students, teachers, and parents is being used by 4,000 students in 16 inner-city schools.

* A school program for 3,000 elementary-school children titled ``Alternative to Gang Membership'' in Paramount, Calif., deals with peer pressure, drugs, and alternatives to violent behavior. The program continues in junior high, with parent involvement.

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* As a pioneer in community mediation, The Community Board Program in San Francisco has sold more than 10,000 copies of its conflict-resolution curriculum. In addition, the group offers five workshops a year. ``We have long waiting lists,'' says Irene Cooper-Basch, development director of the organization.

What these various programs have in common is the conviction that by teaching people how to improve communication and how to see issues and ideas from another perspective, violent behavior will be lessened.

``What we hear from the school systems with these programs,'' Helen Swan says, ``is more kids talking issues out and causing less problems because they have internalized some of these skills.''

Swan's program, ``Building Conflict Solving Skills,'' includes a technique called ``listening contracts.'' ``To improve relations with someone,'' Swan says, ``a child makes a contract to improve listening skills with a specific person. Another popular device done with humor is the story of Little Miss Muffet from the spider's perspective - a frightened, lonely spider. After hearing his side of the story, students feel differently toward him, and may not be so quick to judge others.''

Starting in l976, The Community Board Program resolved community conflicts by using trained, volunteer mediators. Now disputes among families, tenants and landlords, and gangs are resolved. ``Over 95 percent of our mediations end in a written resolution that all parties agree to,'' Ms. Cooper-Basch says. ``We see ourselves as involved in early intervention, preventing potential violence by clearing the air.''

Why is mediation so effective?

``At the neighborhood level,'' Cooper-Basch says, ``there is frustration with the time it takes the justice system to get decisions; and it's a win-lose situation. But community mediation is a win-win situation because both people willingly sign an agreement. In follow-up studies after six months, we find relationships are far better than before.''

At the school level, The Community Board Program has two parts. The first is aimed at kindergarten through 12th grade and emphasizes problem-solving techniques, understanding conflict styles, communication skills, and appreciating differences.

The second is selecting students to be ``conflict managers'' for third grade through 12th.

Students are picked by their peers and teachers to be mediators, Cooper-Basch says, and get special training.

``At the lower grade levels they wear T-shirts that say `Conflict Manager,' '' she says. `` They monitor what is happening on the playground. If there is a dispute, instead of going to the principal, the managers walk over and try to mediate the dispute. At high schools the problems are more serious and often are resolved after school by the managers.''

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