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Penn Hills School District: Student mediation program nets fewer fights

| Monday, June 26, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

A Penn Hills School District initiative aimed at preventing or controlling confrontations between students is reaping improvements in behavior, officials say.

The Mediation Model took effect in the just-ended 2016-17 school year. A core group of staff members in the district's three schools was trained by an outside mediation specialist to handle situations such as fights and social media issues.

“The idea is to educate, rather than sanction,” Superintendent Nancy Hines said. “And the goal is to get kids to see that there's a better way to deal with anger.”

In a supervised session, trained staff members sit down and talk with the students involved rather than send them toward suspension or other punishments.

Discussions depend on the situation, and kids sometime are given time, whether it's an hour or a day, to cool down and relax in order to appropriately deal with the confrontation.

“This core group is able to jump in and facilitate mediation between the kids,” Hines said. “And if it was a really heated battle, we maybe step back and delay if the kids just need some time to calm down.”

Many of these disagreements stem from social media, Linton Middle School Principal Katie Friend said.

“A lot of situations are centered on something that was posted online the night before,” Friend said. “This model is here to give them a good sense and a clear head knowing that the adults are here to help.”

Linton Middle School recorded the most fights consecutively for the past five years, with a total 158 in 2015-16 and 69 this past year under the mediation initiative.

Friend attributes these numbers to behavior by members of an age group of kids that are going through emotional and social changes.

Penn Hills has more than 1,000 students in fifth through eighth grades, Friend said, adding, “It's a very trying time. … Middle school is challenging in nature, but students have been willing to mediate and listen.”

Linton conducted 80 mediation sessions, followed by the high school with 52 and the elementary with 22.

“We've seen great improvements,” Friend said.

Since the model was introduced, fights in the high school were almost cut in half from 65 recorded fights in 2015-16 to 37 by the end of the most recent academic year.

The initiative originally was school board-driven, said Hines, as discussion rose among members regarding kids showing increased signs of aggression.

“I think it's helping a lot because our kids are not fighting as much anymore and it calms them down,” Board President Erin Vecchio said.

“It gets them a chance to release and address their problems. Any time you have a person who's good at talking to a kid it helps them because not that many kids get listened to. Some parents don't have time. It's good that these kids can solve their problems without fighting.”

Because the program resulted in significant signs of improvement, Hines said the district is working on getting more staff members trained for these situations.

Christine Manganas is a Tribune-Review contributing writer. Staff writer Mike DiVittorio contributed.

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