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EXPERT OPINION: Reaching reconciliation, with David Karp

Can mediation really clear up a dispute? Court cases are about determining a win- ner and a loser. Some people think media- tion is about both parties agreeing to lose a little, but it’s not; it’s about finding what each party really wants and fulfilling it. In one case I mediated, a car dealer was suing a woman for not paying her repair bill. It turns out she’d liked the old service manager, but the new one didn’t personally explain things to her, so she didn’t trust the charges on her bill. The dealer promised to introduce her to the new service manager, to start a new trusting relationship, and she happily paid. A court would have or- dered the woman to pay, but the dealer would have lost her as a customer. Through mediation, both parties won. My “Sociology of Conflict Resolution”

course includes an optional 1-credit offer- ing: 30 hours of training to become a state-certified volunteer mediator. Col- lege students can be especially effective when paired with an adult mediator in cases of teenagers disputing with parents. Often our most skilled student mediators are head residents or other peer mentors— they have that extra experience as peace- makers in the campus community. It’s very practical and highly valued: many employ- ers say they seek employees with conflict- resolution skills, because interpersonal and team engagement are so crucial in the workplace today. Good resources for learn- ing more are and

What is “restorative justice” all about? True restorative justice includes making amends—repaying or repairing the harm. Rather than removing the offender from society, RJ rebuilds the offender’s relation- ship with the person or community that

was wronged. It saw a growth spurt in the past 15 years or so, but less so lately. It did get adopted by many schools, as an al- ternative to their 1980s-style “zero tolerance” or “one strike and you’re out” policies. Skidmore uses RJ, but it’s far from standard in higher education. I’m now studying 28 campus judi-

cial systems (with around 500 cases), some using RJ and some not. We’re com- paring the post- adjudication grade- point averages of the offenders who were suspended

What about for really serious, major crime? Reconciliation and restorative jus- tice have seen extraordinary growth in many countries, for everything from minor disputes to mass genocides. In Rwanda, for example, the process seems to

have been amazingly successful. There were 40,000 men in prison after the 1994 genocide; the government couldn’t afford to keep them all there, yet it worried about letting them return home to live next door to the family


and those who weren’t suspended, number of ap- peals lodged, completion rates of assigned repay- ments or other sanctions, and recidivism rates. We’re also asking victims and offenders to report their levels of satisfaction and learning. If the data reflect my experience so far, RJ will score better on all counts than the traditional model. Chelsea Muroda ’11 is analyzing some of these data for her senior project and find- ing that students who go through RJ are more likely to admit and accept responsibility for their misbehavior than stu- dents who go through a tradi- tional disciplinary process. I’ll be reporting full results at my site

of their victims. The presi- dent, Paul Kagame, was so popular that he inspired widespread participation in reconciliation process- es, where people had the opportunity to ex- press remorse and grant forgiveness. After being so devastated by that genocide, Rwanda is now a much safer and more productive society.

David Karp is a sociol- ogy professor and also Skidmore’s associate dean of student affairs and director of cam- pus life.



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