Professor and Assistant Director of Experiential Education – UNT Dallas College of Law
Legal experts estimate only 95% of cases actually go to trial. As part of efforts to resolve disputes, most courts typically send cases to mediation. Judges see the practice as a way for parties with disputes to work with a third party neutral to discuss and hopefully reach a mutual beneficial resolution. In order to better serve clients, lawyers must be familiar with mediation. UNT Dallas College of Law recognizes the importance of Alternative Dispute Resolution practices and mediation to the law practice and has developed opportunities in Community Engagement, the 40 hour Mediation Credentialing program, and Community Lawyering Centers for students to gain exposure and develop skills as part of the Experiential Education2 continuum.
What is mediation?
Mediation is simply a negotiation facilitated by a third party neutral. The facilitator works with the parties in order to reach a solution to the conflict.
Community Engagement Program and Dallas Independent School District Restorative Practice Program
In an effort to foster conflict resolution education and alternative discipline strategies, the Dallas Independent School District integrated a Restorative Practice Program at some elementary and junior high schools. Medrano Middle School is a typical junior high, a four story school building in a Dallas neighborhood buzzing with 5th through 8th grade students. Each grade unit has a designated floor. The students are neatly dressed and polite. In Ms. Cortez’s3 homeroom, we are greeted by the class marketing director, an energetic 6th grader who tells us that she was selected by her homeroom to represent the class when they have visitors. We get a tour of the tidy classroom and take a seat so that the class can begin the circle exercise.4 Typically, students gather in circles for a check-in session or when a student is disruptive. Teachers ask questions and students have a chance to respond. Ms. Cortez explains today’s focus: what do you want to be when you grow up? An inspirational video is shown and then the classroom desks are re-arranged in a circle. A stuffed animal that accompanied Ms. Cortez to college serves as the talking piece. Three circle questions that serve as the focus of the discussion are written on the board: What do you want to be when you grow up? What are some personal goals? What are some struggles to get to the goal? Everyone is reminded of the circle ground rules:5 only the person holding the talking piece may speak; respect the other students in the circle; and participants may pass a turn if they do not want to speak. After the ground rules are reviewed, the circle begins.
During the 2015–2016 school year, the program was piloted in six schools and is now expanded to twenty.6 The platform focuses on providing a safe space for students to express their feelings and gain conflict resolution skills. Program assessments reveal a significant reduction in disciplinary matters and behavioral issues for students participating. “Students are navigating many issues,” said Melissa Gholston, the district’s restorative practice coordinator, “Restorative Practice provides the tools for students to develop empathy, build relationships with peers and teachers, and develop problem solving skills.”
Beginning the spring semester of the first year, COL students are required to provide volunteer hours at area non-profit or government agencies. The experience exposes students to the legal community and provides critical volunteer hours for agencies. Dallas Independent School District and the Restorative Practice program is a Community Engagement Partner. Currently, ten law students serve as volunteer restorative practice facilitators at various schools in the Dallas Independent School District. The students are assigned one class for the entire school year. The consistency helps to build rapport and gives the law students the ability to hone mediation skills. “We love having our law students participate in the program,” said Cheryl Wattley, Director of UNT Dallas’s COL Experiential Education program. “Not only is it a pipeline effort for us, but an opportunity to teach conflict resolutions skills to elementary and middle school students. These are tools that we hope will serve as touchstones in all aspect of their lives.” A culture of meanness, cyberbullying and other stressors make the school day for the average student more difficult. “Restorative Practice provides an outlet for students. When the program is combined with social emotional learning where children learn and apply positive goal setting, empathy and maintaining positive relationships, a more positive and productive school environment emerges for students and administrators,” said Melissa Gholston.7
40 hour mediation credentialing program
As part of the legal education program, COL students may enroll in the 40 hour, one credit mediation credentialing program. The week long course includes lectures from prominent Dallas-area mediators and simulation exercises focused on preparing students for all aspects of mediation. In order to complete the credentialing process students are required to observe two mediations and mediate two cases. To date, forty-five students have completed the 40-hour course to earn the credentialing certificate. The next course is scheduled for the week of May 29–June, 2018.
Community Lawyering Centers and Mediation
The College of Law, working with Legal Services of Northwest Texas (LANWT), the Dallas County Public Defender’s Office, and Legal Action Works- City Square opened two Community Lawyering Centers (CLCs) in the spring of 2016.8 Under the supervision of licensed attorneys, students provide neighborhood-based legal services and community education programs to largely underserved communities. In addition to providing civil and criminal representation, students are also available to facilitate mediations. Through a partnership with the Dallas County Dispute Resolution Center, students serve as mediators for parties with cases assigned to mediation from the civil courts. “The partnership with UNT Dallas College of Law, benefits so many parties,” says Othel Bursey, Dallas County Alternative Dispute Resolution Coordinator, “judges have the ability to have cases cleared from their dockets, litigants have their matters heard, the law students have an opportunity to mediate cases and we showcase the process.” City Square and the City of Dallas Community Prosecutors are also participants, referring neighbor and community conflicts to the program. Justice of the Peace Thomas Jones also appoints the CLC to serve as mediators for small claim case disputes. The program is a way for parties to resolve their conflicts through a facilitated process.
1 Angela Downes is a professor and Assistant Director of Experiential Education at UNT Dallas College of Law. Professor Downes serves as a mediator in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and Associate Judge in Glenn Heights, Texas.
2 Experiential Education references programs and events that provide a practical application, direct experience, and focused reflection to learning.
3 Names of teachers and students have been changed to preserve anonymity.
4 Talking circles, peacemaking circles and healing circles are deeply rooted in the traditional practices of indigenous and African people. In North America, they are widely used among the First Nations people of Canada and among the many tribes of Native Americans in the US. Healing circles take a variety of forms. Basic Structure is that members sit in a circle to consider a problem or a question. The circle starts with a prayer, usually by the person convening the circle, or by an elder, when an elder is involved. A talking stick is held by the person who speaks (other sacred objects may also be used, including eagle feathers and fans). When that person is finished speaking, the talking stick is passed to the left (clockwise around the circle). Only the person holding the stick may speak. All others remain quiet. The circle is complete when the stick passes around the circle one complete time without anyone speaking out of turn. The talking circle prevents reactive communication and directly responsive communication, and it fosters deeper listening and reflection in conversation. Umbreit M. Talking circles [Internet] Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking, School of Social Work, College of Education & Human Development; 2003. Aug 13, [cited 2014 Jan 23]. Available from: http://rjp.umn.edu/; Mehl-Madrona L. Narrative medicine: the use of history and story in the healing process. Rochester, VT: Bear & Company; 2007; Mehl-Madrona L. Healing the mind through the power of story: the promise of narrative psychiatry. Rochester, VT: Bear & Company; 2010.
5 The general circle format for the Restorative Practice program is generally comprised of: 1) Opening 2) Guidelines / Values 3) Introduction of Talking Piece 4) Check-in 5) Discussion Rounds 6) Check-out 7) Closing.
6 Dallas schools participating in the Restorative Practice Program in the 2017 – 2018 school year are: Sam Tasby Middle School, Sarah Zumwalt Middle School, William Hawley Atwell Law Academy, Edward H. Cary Middle School, Seagoville Middle School, Thomas A. Edison Middle Learning Center, L.V. Stockard Middle School, Elisha M. Pease Elementary School, Annie Webb Blanton Elementary School, Edward Titche Elementary School, George W. Carver Creative Arts Learning Center, Umphrey Lee Elementary School, Roger Q. Mills Elementary School, Jose “Joe” May Elementary School. Schools that piloted the program last year: Francisco “Pancho” Medrano Middle School, Boude Storey Middle School, Piedmont G.L.O.B.A.L. Academy, Gaston Middle School, Paul L. Dunbar Learning Center, Caillet Elementary School.
7 Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. What is SEL?” CASEL, www.casel.org/what-is-sel/, (June 19, 2017)
8 For more information about the Community Lawyering Centers, visit https://lawschool.untsystem.edu/sites/default/files/sites/default/files/documents/pdfs/ucl269_clc_brochure_digital_download_format.pdf