Therapists, Role Models, Spies: An Oakland school trains students to help mediate campus conflict

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Kyle McClerkins is in a hurry to get to his office. He just broke up a fight in the yard at Edna Brewer Middle School, and he needs to get to the bottom of it. His shirt stained with lunch milk and the sweat and spit of middle schoolers, he leaps down the stairs, runs down the checkerboard hallway, dashes past rows of fire engine-red lockers, out through the yard, into the fluorescent shell of the gym and finally into his hushed office.

A dozen students, some of who witnessed the fight, arrive shortly thereafter. They sit behind desks in a big circle. His calm low voice permeating the quiet room, McClerkins soon has the students introducing themselves by passing around a “talking piece” – any little toy or object – that serves as a ticket to speak. Slowly, like a plane making its prolonged descent, they arrive at the fight. “How did it make you feel?” he asks. “What happened?” Their answers are standard middle school fare: vague and vaguely snarky, running the gamut from “I don’t care,” to “I wish they had kept fighting.” After half an hour, he dismisses them back to class in grumbling pairs.

But when there is one student left, McClerkins asks her to stay. He speaks to her in an almost conspiratorial tone. “What happened?” he asks. V drops her eyes to the floor, her curly black hair falling forward, and takes a deep breath. She launches into a labyrinthine account of Facebook-fueled drama and gossip that had finally reached a boiling point. McClerkins listens patiently.

V is a peer mediator. She is part of a program that McClerkins has helmed full-time at Edna Brewer since this past fall, aiming to involve students in the judicial process of their peers. Peer mediators serve as McClerkins’ eyes and ears around school. They listen to fellow students, help them take responsibility for their actions and decide on appropriate consequences. McClerkins’ peer mediator program is part of a larger framework called the Restorative Justice Whole School Model, a three-tiered system that engages the entire school community and sets up a value system that every one — staff and students alike — is expected to follow. The Restorative Justice model has been implemented in Oakland since 2005 and exists in various forms around the country, from Chicago to New Orleans.

David Yusem, the program manager of Restorative Justice in Oakland, says that the Whole School model allows students to bring their values into the classroom. Then, when a dispute occurs, he says, there is a “foundation for that difficult discussion.”

These discussions take the form of mediation sessions. Sometimes McClerkins handles them by himself, but more often than not, his peer mediators take the reins. McClerkins – everywhere he goes he is hailed by students shouting “Mr. Kyle!” and reaching for high fives and fist bumps – needs the peer mediators as much as they depend on his guidance and instruction. They can provide a voice that isn’t The Man. Not every ten or twelve-year-old is up to being a therapist for other ten and twelve-year-olds. Applicants must pass an interview and complete a two-day training course led by McClerkins. Only then can they begin the arduous task of serving as a pre-pubescent professional.

Edna Brewer Middle School sits on a quiet street off of Park Boulevard, just blocks from Oakland High, and almost two miles east of Lake Merritt. According to Sam Pasarow, who has been the principal of Edna Brewer since 2009, the school is one of the most ethnically and socio-economically diverse in the district: almost half of the students are African-American, a quarter are Asian, and the rest are mostly Hispanic or Caucasian. But Pasarow says that there is still a significant gap in terms of who is being disciplined.  African-American boys are still facing disproportionate rates of disciplinary action, and there is “a lot of pressure” from the district to reduce the gap.

Although Edna Brewer is not plagued by the alarming rates of violence of other schools in the district, it still has its share of fights, bullying and cyber-bullying. In light of the high number of petty offenses at Edna Brewer, Pasarow has instituted a no-suspension policy for first-time offenders, except in instances of great bodily harm, which has reduced suspensions by 50% this school year. But this means McClerkins and his team are kept busy. This year, he plans to “hire” more students than ever before.

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Over the course of two days in the autumn of 2013, McClerkins makes his way to every classroom in the school – about 36 in all – to introduce himself and invite students to apply to be peer mediators. They’re sold as soon as he mentions missing class and fieldtrips – the holy grail of the middle school experience – but he doesn’t stop there. “What creates drama in your lives?” he asks each class. Smartphones, they respond. Facebook. Snapchat.

Get your parents to sign the form and put it in my mailbox, he tells them. “If you return it to my face I will rip it up.” It’s the first step, he says, to see who is able to follow directions. By the end of the following day, his mailbox is stuffed.

A few weeks later, the applicants come to Mr. Kyle’s office for interviews. The sixth graders look terrified. Their eyes are wide and they walk on tiptoe. The office doesn’t look quite like a classroom – a green rug rests on the hardwood floor; atop it a single red plastic chair faces Mr. Kyle’s desk. Morning sunlight floats through the single window. The walls are lined with college flags and a couple of shooting targets of human torsos that Mr. Kyle put up as a reminder that we are all only one bad decision away from horrible consequences.

He shakes their hands. They ease themselves into the chair. They look at him expectantly, or they look down at their shoes. Some of them are wearing suits and ties or fancy dresses; others, their standard jeans and tee-shirts. Flanking Mr. Kyle are Jane Gajano-Blythe, a school parent, and Aly Jones, the pink-haired school secretary. The whole thing has a slight feeling of a courtroom appearance, or an interview to work for a presidential security detail.

Mr. Kyle is wearing charcoal slacks and shiny black shoes, a black sweater and a salmon-pink polo shirt with its collar popped. He leans back in his chair, interlaces his fingers and fixes the students with a piercing gaze behind his black frame glasses. They gulp, waiting for the first probing question.

“What would you rather have, a bucket for a foot or water bottles for fingers?” he asks in a toneless voice.

They look like they’ve been slapped across the face. What did he just say? As they stammer their responses, Mr. Kyle nods solemnly and takes notes. Desperately, they search his face for some hint that they’ve answered correctly. More questions follow in a volley: “What are your weaknesses?” “What is a value?” “Would you rather not brush your teeth or not take a shower for ten days?”

They are reeling. But their wit shines through: “I’d just take a bath,” in response to the aforementioned question. When asked if he had a dream, another student responds: “Yeah, for it to rain chickens.” Everything they say Mr. Kyle observes with the same unrevealing look, the same patience and note-taking. When it’s over, ten or fifteen minutes later, he comes out from behind his desk and shakes their hands again. If they’ve dressed up for the occasion he’ll snap a photo of them in front of the whiteboard. He opens the door for them, revealing a jumble of faces eagerly waiting their turn, like the doors are about to open at a Rolling Stones show. He picks one, and the rest groan, eager and antsy to show Mr. Kyle that they have what it takes.

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Sitting in a sunny café on a balmy November afternoon, McClerkins remarks, “A child walks in here right now, I could probably get a fist pound or high five within about ten seconds.” His eyes twinkle behind his glasses. “Sometimes they call me the child whisperer. I’ll own that name.”

Until just a few years ago, Kyle had no professional experience working with young people. But when he was laid off from his job as a tech liaison in the summer of 2008, he decided to operate what he calls a Daddy Day Care based out of his home. At the time, he had no experience working with young people (beyond his own). But his ability to keep children engaged, entertained and safe helped him realize his potential, and as he says, “the reason I’m here, was put on this earth.”

At the same time he was developing his skills with young people, he was hustling to find a steady job and eventually landed a gig with the non-profit Brothers on the Rise before getting a call from Restorative Justice in 2010. The program was just getting off the ground in Oakland. “If it’s gonna push me forward to the next step, I can jump on that train and ride it as it goes,” McClerkins says. After a week-long training session, he decided to split his time between two middle schools – Havens Court and Madison – in East Oakland.

There, he found some students were drinking in the hallways and in class. When they got in trouble, McClerkins says, some parents would at times come to school “reeking of alcohol [or having] just smoked a joint,” and trying to argue on their children’s behalf. Kids were dropping out. “I didn’t know how to take it all,” McClerkins says. “You have to immerse yourself in it. You have to make sure that the students see you every day.” The students saw him as their lawyer: “He won’t judge you,” they would say.

Restorative Justice manager Yusem says that McClerkins “has blown me away on so many occasions when he comes up with these ideas of how to engage students, whether it’s a game or a type of a question he might ask them…he’s all about relationships…they listen to him because he respects them.” After two hectic years of splitting his time between multiple schools, McClerkins settled into a more permanent position at Edna Brewer. He appreciates having an office, and the consistency of seeing the same faces every day, but he misses being able to fly under the radar.

Shortly after McClerkins finished conducting interviews with the 60-odd applicants, someone broke into his car. All of his notes and the written applications were stolen. The students pestered him incessantly – “When are we going to hear?” All Mr. Kyle could do was tell them that with a real job, sometimes you don’t hear back for a month or more. Although he admits it was chaos, it was a blessing in disguise.  Many of the applicants who interviewed well started turning up on the wrong side of his desk. He checked their grades. He consulted the other members of his panel. And then, finally, in December, he made his decisions.

The two-day training starts about as informally as it can. “You can lie on the floor…I just want you present,” Mr. Kyle says to the twenty-some eager faces crammed into his office. Immediately, Tariq, Simon and Zack spring out from behind their desks and dive-bomb the enormous pillows, cheering. The school orchestra practices in the adjacent auditorium, and a wash of violins and bass sneaks in through the walls and under the door.

Once the recruits are all settled, pastries in hand, Mr. Kyle kicks things off with a conversation about values – the same conversation that started his own training for Restorative Justice. As his disciples call out the values they deem critical to being a mediator, Mr. Kyle writes them on the board. “Don’t hate” is mentioned first, while “Hashtag YOLO” follows shortly thereafter. As each guideline is called, Mr. Kyle has his students throw a thumbs-up in the air if they agree. Audrey McGuiness, a beaming sixth grader with long braids, hurls her first skyward. The list gets longer and longer. They have been together for only an hour, but already Mr. Kyle is turning them into soldiers with a code.

The group spends part of the morning playing games and getting better acquainted. Mr. Kyle has them form two circles, the inner one facing outwards, and the students take turns interviewing each other. Even though some of the questions are silly, the activity is designed to hone their listening skills. When asked how she has changed since elementary school, one student responds, “Now I’m still the bomb.” But their attention fades quickly, and so Mr. Kyle keeps them on their feet, doing activities outside, into the office, into the gym and then back into the office for pizza. “Let me clarify,” he says before they start eating, “You’re with me all day.” They cheer.

After lunch, the group focuses on the nitty-gritty of running a mediation session. Every mediation begins with check-in questions – light-hearted and silly, not unlike the curve balls Mr. Kyle threw at applicants during their interviews. These questions, he tells the trainees, are designed to diffuse tensions between students. “No one wants to start on a negative note,” he reminds them.

Where does the drama that leads to fights and bullying come from? As a talking piece – a seashell in this case – makes its way around the room, the trainees acknowledge one by one that so much of it is fueled by social media – Facebook and SnapChat and InstaGram and the message app Kik. Their phones provide a constant supply of fuel, just waiting to ignite a fire.

“This is the smartest school I’ve been at, but y’all do the dumbest things,” Mr. Kyle says.

They go over the paperwork that mediators fill out if they see a conflict or catch wind of one. Once McClerkins receives one of these forms, he explains to the trainees, he schedules a mediation. As seventh grader and veteran peer mediator Marielle Allen points out, the process gets especially tricky when the conflict involves a friend. Or an enemy. Or someone you have a crush on. “If your friend is wrong, then your friend is wrong. And you can’t really defend them.”

Confidentiality is key to the success of the peer mediation program: what happens in Mr. Kyle’s office stays there. They are reminded of this during the second day of training, when they role-play different kinds of mediation situations. They rehearse their check-in questions and divvy up the jobs of leading icebreakers, asking offenders what happened and restating their conflicts. The veteran students talk about their own specialties. Viet handles fights. Tariq is up for “the whole enchilada.” Audrey is willing to tackle anything except “physical punchy-punchy things.” When the second day of training comes to a close, they are all eligible to sign up to mediate a conflict.

Their chance to put their skills to the test comes soon enough. The first week back from winter break at Edna Brewer, two students are caught playing the unfortunately-named and foolish game, “Bangkok,” in which boys take turns kicking each other in the groin. Unsurprisingly, the two boys ended up in a fistfight on the ground. Mr. Kyle selects a team of four mediators, two veterans and two freshly-trained novices, to handle the situation. He briefs them in his office beforehand and together they divvy up the tasks. When Mr. Kyle leaves to retrieve the two Bangkokers, the mediators get goofy. Viet and Steven start chucking talking pieces around the room and Erica and Paulina stare at their phones. Then Viet jams a chair up under the door.

When the two offending boys finally make it in the office, one a few minutes after the other, they are completely absorbed into Viet and Stephen’s game, pitching a hefty ball of duct tape around the office before Mr. Kyle returns. “Get loose!” Viet whoops. After an ice breaker (“I’m good, I got to leave math class,” says one of the two accused boys), the group quickly settles down to business. The mediators take turns posing questions to the culprits, and they soon realize that the two Bangkokers have no bad blood between them. They’ve barely ever spoken to each other, except a couple of quick chats about video games. But another student, not present at the mediation, has been egging them on, telling each of the boys that the other is plotting to beat him up. One of the mediators remarks, “He’s kind of an ass,” and the rest of the students nod solemnly.

Viet points out that other kids are talking about the fight on Facebook. “People take me as a vicious person,” one of the culprits says quietly. “I don’t like that.”

“How can you make that wrong right?” Mr. Kyle asks, chiming in. The same boy, looking wistful behind his glasses, responds, “Sorry for hitting you in the nuts.” Everyone laughs and the boy adds, “Every person who’s going through puberty is a sociopath.”

The two boys sign papers saying that they will repay their debt to the school community by making posters for him. McClerkins dismisses the Bangkokers back to class and debriefs his team, sprawled across the body pillows in the middle of the circle of desks. Then he writes them hall passes and slowly, they inch towards the door.

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Sam Pasarow, principal of Edna Brewer, points out that mediations don’t always work. The school has not written suspensions, detentions or suspensions out of its disciplinary policy. This doesn’t make the peer mediation program any less important. The pride that peer mediators take in the work they do is just as relevant to the Edna Brewer community as the information pipeline they provide, or the voice they give to their peers. Audrey McGuiness, the unflagging sixth grader, sees it as her job. “I want to be in this for real, with other people who care,” she says.

Tariq Paulding, a returning peer mediator, says that the program helped him to calm down and be able to listen to his peers. “Mr. Kyle taught me things my teachers didn’t have the time to teach me,” he says. “We can all be on the same level with people. Not shouting over them, but actually hearing what they have to say.”

7 Comments

  1. Jeri Schneider

    I think RJ has made a big difference in our school. My students are special to me, and they are the future of Oakland. They are learning to work with and for each other. I’m proud of them!

  2. Yari

    Go Kyle Go!!! We love you and the work you do!!!

  3. Ebms fan

    GO PANTHERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Barb

    Congratulations Kyle and Sam. You have a good thing going with RJ at Edna Brewer.

  5. Michelle

    My son is a 6th grader. He hasn’t been involved in anything to warrant a trip to Mr. Kyle (thankful for that, though he and the program sound wonderful!). I hadn’t really known much about the Restorative Justice program so I’m happy that this article was written and so much was spelled out here. Glad to hear this program is a part of our school and I hope it continues!

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