When Principal Veronica Arreguin first came to Maclay Middle School in Pacoima, it was overrun by gangs.
“There were plenty of lockdowns. I was afraid for students’ safety,” Arreguin said.
Located in one of the toughest gang neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley, Arreguin has quelled violence at the school, thanks in part to a peer mediation program that teaches students to resolve conflict in a non-violent way.
The school is in jeopardy of losing the program when it’s private funding ends this year. Principal Veronica Arreguin said the $75,000 that covers the salary of the counselor and supplies is money well spent.
“I’m always afraid of the program going away. What do I do then?” Arreguin said.
Since Maclay students began learning how to resolve their own disputes with words instead of fists, grades and attitudes have improved. Everything discussed in mediation is kept private.
“The reason why our students resorted to responding with violence, which is fighting, is because they didn’t have the words to express emotions,” Arreguin said.
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Mediation counselor Lauro Cons helps students understand that conflicts are a part of life.
“We teach them conflict resolution skills, positive communication skills,” Cons said.
Under Cons' guidance, peer mediators encourage students to talk out their differences, to listen and understand.
Whether it is name calling or bullying, the student mediators are trained to help find a solution. And it’s working.
“We are not the judge,” eighth grader Alejandro Juarez said. “We stay in the middle – neutral.
Classmate Aliwah Bowman agreed.
“We don’t tell them what they should do. We don’t give out advice,” Bowman said. “We just help them come up with way they think they should solve the problem.
“The school used to have a lot of fights and a lot of problems when I was in sixth grade, and now there are barely any,” the eighth grader added.