Preventing bullying: Peace managers help resolve conflicts between students before they get out of control

More than one out of every five students report being bullied, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. The majority of bullying happens at school, but it can also take place on the way to school, through text messages or online (better known as cyberbullying).

At St. Mary School in Sacramento, trained peace managers are helping resolve conflicts between fellow students before they get out of control, creating a supportive school environment. Sixty-five peace managers, all sixth to eighth graders among the 138 junior high level students, must maintain good grades and be excellent citizens in order to stay in the program. They meet regularly with one another, teachers, and the school counselor to discuss incidents they’ve witnessed or prevented.

“We create peace through communication and help the younger kids with skills to resolve their own conflicts,” says eighth grader Bobby Romitti, 13, who is in his first year as peace manager and has attended St. Mary since sixth grade.

“I definitely experienced bullying myself several times, in fourth and sixth grade,” he says. “People called me names, being jerky and hurtful, and excluding me constantly from games. I got over it by playing with a different group of friends and getting away from those people. I stay away from negative kids and conflicts. When I was bullied, it would have been great to have someone older than me to talk to who was wiser and not a teacher.”

Before lunch or recess, a handful of on duty peace managers tie on their blue capes, grab a clipboard and head out to the playground. Using their eyes, ears and experience, they help students in lower grades resolve their conflicts on the spot. Every incident is noted and shared back with school staff.

The peace managers program “stops conflicts at the source and has a healing aspect for the little kids,” Bobby notes. “It helps them have a clear mind and not get in as many struggles. We help them learn the skills to solve their own problems and later they will be able to do it on their own and not need us. We are role models trying to set a good example.”

School counselor Michelle Timm, who has worked in both public and private schools for the past 18 years, has been at St. Mary School for the past seven years. The school has 304 students in transitional kindergarten to eighth grade and 34 children in the preschool. Michelle introduced the program to the campus after listening to struggling students.

“One of the main things that comes to my attention is kids feel they are not being heard with each other and this gives them a voice,” she says. “It’s easier for students to talk to someone closer to their own age. I see students who tend to isolate themselves when they are being bullied. Peace managers are out there looking for kids getting in difficulties or maybe squabbles with one another. I teach them to look for clues on their face, what they say, body language, or if they look upset, so they can approach them.”

Each peace manager attends a three-hour training session. “We do a lot of role playing, practicing what they need to say to kids when they see conflicts,” Michelle says.

After passing a readiness test, students are given the tools that help them guide other students through conflict resolution. They utilize a “conflict resolution wheel” with various options to offer. “Our goal with the peace managers is that they are not supposed to solve the problems for the students, but the students are to solve the problems themselves and they just guide them through it,” Michelle says.

Ella Rose-Malarkey, 11, who is in sixth grade, started at St. Mary in fifth grade. In her former school, “there were a lot of problems and no one was there to help, so I signed up for peace managers right away. I fill in immediately if someone can’t do their shift.” The most common problems she sees is “students who are alone, get left out of a game and want friends to notice them. We talk with them and try to help.”

Ella adds sometimes kids are having family problems at home “and they don’t talk to us at first, but then they open up. The skills we learn as peace managers we can use anywhere. I use them at home sometimes when my brother and I get into a fight. I say take a deep breath, calm down, and think about the problem and how we can solve it in a different way.”

Eighth grader Andrea Kustic, 14, who has been at St. Mary since kindergarten, is in her second year as a peace manager. “What is most common is kids calling other kids names or making up rumors behind their back,” she says. “I wanted to be involved because it creates more of a community. I know when I was little sometimes I was lonely, so it’s nice we can help.”

Ashley Timm, 13, who is in seventh grade, says peace managers “help solve problems right at the moment they happen, rather than going back into the classroom and asking the teachers for help. We solve it at recess or lunch, so they still have time to play and bond after they’ve solved it. It’s mostly small problems, but we can still make a difference.”

Michelle notes that if a peace manager has been the victim of bullying, “they have more sensitivity to know what to look for and more empathy. Over time, peace managers develop a sense of confidence through their training and in action on the playground. They learn conflict resolution skills themselves and how to manage their own anger.”

Principal Laura Allen, who served St. Mary School from 1999 to 2010 and returned in 2016, says the peace managers program gives students the tools to speak up and resolve conflicts on their own. “It’s a lifesaver for our kids. We want kids to be creative in their thinking as well as good, critical thinkers. We want them to be collaborative as well as communicative, and the program brings this all together.”

Counselor shares bullying prevention tips for families

Michelle Timm urges parents to understand that bullying is not acceptable and can have severe consequences that can result in mental health concerns, substance abuse, school and academic problems.

Bullying can be divided into three categories: physical and verbal bullying, as well as social behaviors which can include exclusion (leaving someone out, telling others not to be their friends) and access of embarrassing information (spreading rumors of embarrassing someone in public).

Michelle suggests to consider not only the person being bullied, but the person doing the bullying. “Many times the person who is bullying is doing it because they are having serious family issues at home and feeling bad about themselves. Then they come to school and take it out on students in their class. My goal is to have empathy for the bully and look for the best ways to help.”

Signs that a student is being bullied can be “they shut down and build a wall up and isolate themselves,” she notes. “They can also show signs of depression. You don’t want to let it get to the point where they are feeling so sad that they might be suicidal. The biggest push at our school is students have to feel they have a safe environment here to speak up. I make it clear to all our students that bullying is common, but you don’t have to face it alone and it’s important to report it. There’s a difference between reporting and tattling and our students are taught the difference.”

Signs that parents should be looking for if their child is being bullied are depression, social withdrawal, low self-esteem, sleep disturbance and persistent or recurring abdominal pain or headache.

Cyberbullying is quite common and can include things such as harassing messages, threats and intimidation techniques, or disbursing of private or embarrassing information online, Michelle notes. Cyberbullying spreads more quickly than bullying, has access to a much wider audience and can potentially remain online permanently. Perpetrators can often remain anonymous.

“Kids need to be smart about what websites they go to and careful about what they do,” she says. “Parents have to be aware and knowledgeable about what is out there, as it can spiral quickly out of control. They need to have open communication with their kids, pay attention to when children say they want to talk, and make time for discussion.”

(In photo above, peace managers Bobby Romitti and Ashley Tim speak with first grader Gabby Semon on the playground at St. Mary School. Photo by Cathy Joyce.)

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