Restoring Civility: Undergrad Education Minors Learn to Resolve Conflict in Inner City Schools

Future educators and school counselors share their experiences as mediators, mentors in L.A. schools for at-risk youth.

When Wellford (Buzz) Wilms decided to take a training course on conflict resolution in 1998, the professor of education was merely hoping to acquire the skills to preserve neighborly harmony in his idyllic Topanga neighborhood. What he came away with was a course that he and Avis Ridley-Thomas, lecturer in UCLA’s César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies, have been teaching for the last ten years to UCLA undergraduates. The goal of the course: to give students the opportunity to become conflict mediators in some of the most troubled middle and high schools in Los Angeles.

“It was a new experience for both of us, teaching undergrads [to mediate],” says Wilms. “They wanted to go back to schools like the ones they came from, and make it easier for students coming up behind them to succeed. I think that’s the greatest reward.”

The course, “Restoring Civility: Understanding, Using, and Resolving Conflict,” is open to undergraduates with an education minor or students in Chicana/o Studies. The first quarter is spent on training the students. They are then placed in schools as mediators for the second quarter; a third optional quarter of service in the schools is allowed.

“We discovered that so many of these students form relationships with the kids in these middle and high schools,” says Wilms. “They would start relating to them and then, they’re gone. So we added the third quarter.”

Ridley-Thomas, who led the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Dispute Resolution Program and worked in the Office of the City Attorney for 30 years, says that her vision with the initiative was to provide Los Angeles with “a mediator on every block.” By the time she retired in 2011, more than 2,000 community mediators had been trained by her and her colleagues; many of them now serve as coaches for students in the “Restoring Civility” course at UCLA. She says that all schools, no matter what urban environment they are located in, need the ability to mediate conflict.

“The research says that every 90 seconds, there is a conflict on a school campus,” she says. “You need it everywhere. We can’t fully conceive how easily matters can be resolved if we use listening and communication skills.”

This past academic year, more than 30 UCLA undergraduates participated in “Restoring Civility,” at Hamilton High School, Los Angeles Leadership Academy, and Sotomayor High School. In addition, several students were placed at the Soledad Enrichment Action (SEA) Charter High School on Manchester Avenue in South Los Angeles.

“SEA and its 18 other locations cater to high school students who are done with LAUSD,” says Wilms. “They are out on the edge, by their fingernails. A judge has remanded them. They broke parole and got sent back. There are only 120 students in this school; they are kids who are really in trouble.”

“They’re committed to keeping those students in school,” says Ridley-Thomas. “They could so easily drop out, because they’re overwhelmed by their problems. They have social services on one level of the school, so when [students] come in and they’re high that morning or have other problems that they experienced just getting to school, they have somebody to help them.”

Ridley-Thomas says that she was pleased that a couple of their students this year had been peer mediators when in middle or high school themselves and would be well prepared to deal with the unpredictable environment at SEA.

“AT SEA, what they needed was on-the-spot mediation,” she notes. “So we encouraged [our] students to, wherever their skills were called upon, be prepared to use them right away. Sitting down quietly in a room did not necessarily work in that particular setting.”

Erika Gallegos is majoring in Chicana/o Studies, with a minor in Labor and Workplace Studies. She emphasizes the fact that she and her classmates often did not work at mediating at SEA as much as they exercised a level of damage control.

“At the beginning, we thought we were going to use our training from the fall,” she says. “But it turned out to be different, because the issues that they have here mostly deal with gang violence, drug abuse, problems in the home.

“Those are things we’d like to help with but at the same time, we’re not trained for that. Also, the reality is that we were there [only] once a week. We had to change our outlook on it. Sometimes they just needed somebody to listen to them, or someone to talk to. Sometimes they needed resources and they didn’t know how to get a hold of them. So we’ve been a combination of mediators, counselors, and mentors, all in one.”

Tianna Williams, a senior who majored in sociology with a minor in education, is looking forward to becoming a school counselor. She says that her experience at SEA really pushed her to test her abilities.

“I specifically chose this site because I knew it would be difficult at times to get through to the students, or for them to listen to you or want your help,” she says. “The fact that we’re getting through to the students here – I feel like I can get through to any student, anywhere.

“Especially with this not being your ordinary high school, it gave us special experience. You never knew what you were going to experience in a day. It can be something as small as, ‘I broke up with my boyfriend,’ to ‘I hate my teacher,’ to, ‘I just don’t want to be here anymore.’ There are a variety of different issues that may not go on in your traditional high school.”

Haydee Garay is a sociology major with a minor in education and Chicana/o Studies. She says that being from a similar background as the students at SEA worked to her advantage.

“I feel that I can really relate to them,” she says. “I noticed a lot of students are really open with me. They can tell … if you really care. A girl told me that she was pregnant. It really helps because you have some insight, some understanding.

“A colleague of ours thought it was simple to deal with the whole gang thing, and try to prevent it. But if you don’t understand the gang culture… it goes beyond [the students]. It’s in generations of their family. You have to understand what you can prevent and what you can’t.”

Raquel Hernandez is a sociology major with a double minor in education and Chicana/o Studies, and has taken other service learning classes at UCLA, including a course on Freirean education. She says that her experience at SEA provided dramatic evidence of the disparity between females and males in the juvenile court system.

“I was in a class where there was only one girl and the other 15 [students] were all guys,” she says. “It shows how the system works and how it pushes out more Latino and Black males than it does females, in my opinion. Once, I was approached by a group of boys and they were interested in the fact that I was going to UCLA. When I asked them if they were interested in going to college after they graduated, a lot of them said, ‘No, I’m going to work.’ Or they were interested in continuing to be involved in gang-related [activity]. One of them said he was going to just sell drugs.”

“I asked him, ‘Are you sure that’s what you want to do?’ When I was younger, and an adult told me not to do something that was a bad idea, I would want to do it more. So we approached [the students] in a way that’s not authoritative, but speaking to them one-on-one, letting them know we were there once.”

While SEA authorities would deal with serious situations, the mediation students often played a role in trying to nip matters in the bud, with varying results.

“I spoke to a student one day, and the next day she got into a fight,” says Williams. “It was reported to me what happened, because they knew I spoke to her. But I think the most we can try to do is to prevent those things from happening.

“With the gang culture being so prevalent here, it’s a lot harder to deal with certain situations. The most I try to do is sit down with a student and seriously tell them, ‘These are the consequences for your actions if you decide to go down this route, and these are the consequences for this route. Which one do you want to take?’ Hopefully, they choose the right way, but that doesn’t always happen.”

Garay says that she and her classmates were often called upon for life coaching and personal encouragement by SEA students.

“I know our purpose was conflict mediation, but we did a lot more,” she says. We’ve been helping two girls find housing. One is going to get kicked out when she turns 18. I’m laying out options for the other, who is pregnant. She’s telling me everything she wants to do – get a driver’s license, go to trade school. We’re planning out her potential life.

“Students came to us for personal things. You build relationships with them. Every student I talk to, they all tell me what they want to do. I tell them, ‘This is how you need to get there.’ A lot of students didn’t even know what the SAT is.”

Relating the story of a SEA student who was accepted to California State University, Dominguez Hills, Garay says that a successful outcome like being able to attend college can be a profound example to their peers.

“She was saying that when the other students found out she got into [college], they were all excited,” says Garay. “They [try to] inspire each other, which a lot of people don’t know about.”

Hernandez says that getting to get the students at SEA to even talk to the mediators was half the battle.

“These kids are tough,” she notes. “They might be soft underneath, but you have to break through that first. You have to be able to relate to them [and] show them time and time again that you’re going to be reliable, that you’re trustworthy.  And they’re always going to be testing you. If you don’t pass once, they’re not going to go back to you ever again.”

Williams appreciates her experience at the school, which is the largest SEA campus and has produced the most graduating students.

“It’s nice to see students who think they may not have any other options or choices still able to get a high school diploma,” she says. “They get excited, when you ask them, ‘When are you leaving?’ I’ve seen a lot of students and people in general not have the option or opportunity to pursue their education because they were in the system or they have behavioral problems.”

Hernandez had a more personal connection to her work at SEA.

“I’m from La Puente, from a family background that has been involved with gangs,” she says. “My dad was in prison all of my life, so I know the whole system and how it works.

“That’s one of the reasons I did this. I felt like my dad was one of those troubled youth. You have to be realistic in that you can’t change everybody. But I feel like if I can impact just one student at a time, that would make a difference in their life, even if it doesn’t change the bigger picture.”

Ridley-Thomas says that while behavioral issues are often handled at schools by administrators or police, volunteer mediation is having an influence on the youth that has not been directly measured as of yet.

“I honestly think that we’re learning as human beings, the real value of [mediation],” she says. “We first think of the people whose job it is to handle those disputes – the police, deans of discipline.

“Police officers really wanted the basic mediation skills training, so we were going to train them, recognizing however, that the average mediation takes about three hours. That’s not really what they do. We want them to do what they do. But they wanted the skills and I thought that was great.”

Wilms, who with Ridley-Thomas founded The Institute for Nonviolence in Los Angeles in 2009,  says that they hope to take the volunteer mediator model into L.A. schools and to provide training for parents, teachers, and police officers who can be available not just for students but the entire local community after school hours.

“The police department really liked the idea because about half their calls are about garbage can disputes, all kinds of stuff that can escalate into violence but wastes their time,” says Wilms.

“The police told me in founding the city’s attorney’s dispute resolution program that half the disputes [they got calls for] were appropriate for dispute resolution,” says Ridley- Thomas. “At that time, there were about three million requests for service. It’s a very expensive way to get our problems resolved in Los Angeles. That’s why I came up with ‘a mediator on every block.’”

To enroll in “Restoring Civility,” contact Kim Mattheussens at


Above: UCLA undergrads, taught by Avis Ridley-Thomas, co-founder, The Institute for Nonviolence, and Wellford (Buzz) Wilms, GSE&IS professor of education, worked as volunteer mediators at SEA Charter High School, which serves youth in the juvenile legal system. L-R: Ridley-Thomas, Raquel Hernandez, junior, sociology; Wilms, Haydee Garay, junior, sociology; Tianna Williams, senior, sociology; and Erika Gallegos, junior, Chicana/Chicano Studies.