I'm going to assume that most people at the table here are going to talk primarily about one-on-one conflict, specifically student/student conflicts. So, I am going to focus a little bit more on the broad picture--on conflict in schools among various groups and also on the problem that so often teachers and administrators in schools don't anticipate conflict; they don't plan for it ahead of time. School officials just sort of keep their fingers crossed, hoping that nothing will happen. They don't really know how to figure out whether something is brewing.
When we do get into a community before there has been a major conflict, for example, when there have been some differences or disagreements that have been brought to our attention, one of the first things we try to do is to make the people in the school aware of what the racial climate is in that particular district or school or community. This gives them a better focus on racial/ethnic conflict than they often have. If you ask community members what the racial climate is, people will often answer, "I don't know. We kind of get along," or, "Well, I'm not sure. . . We don't have any problems." But, saying "We don't have any problems" means "We haven't had any riots lately."
So, I think people need to learn what the indicators of racial conflict are. People might look first at self-segregation among the student body, which is one of those two-edged swords. If there is very obvious self-segregating, I think that you at least want to consider it, acknowledge it, and see if you can deal with it by creating more cross-cultural opportunities where groups can work together. But, you don't want to eliminate self-segregation. I think it is very important that minority groups or white students be allowed to work on things together, or have lunch together, or eat with just black friends. That is not necessarily bad. People need these opportunities for self-affirmation and identity. It is something that you want to encourage. You don't want to make it sound as though it is a problem if a person doesn't have an equal number of friends from each race. I know that this requires a fine balance. But, I think that one wants to have a combination of both diverse and homogenous groupings. Gender differences work the same way and have the potential for creating problems, too. So, they are also something that school officials need to be aware of.
You also want to look at things like discipline statistics. For instance, which students are being disciplined and for what offenses and how often? If there is a great disparity between the disciplinary measures taken for minority students and for non-minority students, this is a problem. Usually, if you look closely, you can almost always identify the particular teachers who are responsible for such discipline disparities. It is interesting because there have been some studies done, and I've spent a lot of time myself in one of Colorado's larger school districts talking to principals. What they typically say is, "Well, you know, usually about 10 percent of the teachers (indeed this percentage is consistent with the research) make about 85 percent of the referrals." This doesn't happen because a few teachers get all the bad students. It happens because some teachers know how to handle behavior problems and conflict situations and others don't. Herein lies the problem. If you know there are some teachers who know how to handle conflict and others don't, then you need to be aware that those who don't, represent a potential problem area for the school.
We were asked to discuss communication. In order to communicate you need to at least speak the same language. Sometimes something as simple as this is overlooked. For example, if you are trying to establish communication between a school and a community, and the parents you need to reach don't speak the same language as the notices that are sent home, it is not going to do a lot of good. Furthermore, if the notices are sent to a home where anything from the school is viewed as bad news, it probably won't be read, regardless of the language. What, in fact, does it take to get information to that particular group of parents?
Rumor control is also important, especially when we get into situations such as those surrounding the two major court cases in Los Angeles. In that case we were trying to minimize the likelihood of conflict after the verdicts came down. One of the key roles here is controlling rumors, because rumors can reap havoc in school districts--not only among students, but also among staff.
I was going to start my discussion by putting a chart on the board just to show all the possibilities of where conflicts occur because, typically, we think about conflicts among students and yet there are so many other sources of conflict in a school district. For example, you could have column listing different parties: students, parents, community, administration, teachers and then have these same categories across the top. There is a potential for conflict in every cell across the board: student/student, student/parent, student/community, etc. Each of these represents an area of potential conflict. So, just looking at one cell, say student/student, and doing peer mediation training won't be effective if it is done within a setting where the mediation or conflict-resolution approach isn't used in all the other conflicts around them. You need to establish a climate where mediation or other positive forms of conflict resolution are used for all the conflicts, not just for the conflicts in one particular cell.