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Mobilizing the Third Side for a Winning Alliance against Violence

Twenty-two educators from private and public schools systems in Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania exchanged their ideas, ideals and poignant stories about violence in the lives of school children during an online course taught at Eastern Mennonite University in 2002. In this short article, pieces of their stories are shared to illustrate a framework for enlarging the circle in prevention efforts for bullies, victims and bystanders. From the cases described and using Ury’s Third Side model, we sketch an approach where schools, families, and communities could stand together to transform some of the violent and depressing aspects in the daily lives of children.

What is the Third Side?

In his collection of essays entitled, Must we Fight? Ury sets out a framework for resolving and preventing violence using the Third Side, which is simply the “surrounding community”, or those we might call “stakeholders” in bully prevention. In education, the Third Side might consist of the greater school community, the faculty and staff, the parents, the administrators and other partners who support children and families. Ury asserts that conflict containment and conflict resolution are not enough. The most important function of the Third Side is to prevent. Prevention is key because the best chance for success comes early on in a conflict. According to Ury’s model, there are four factors or conditions that enable the Third Side to be effective. They are Incentives, Catalysts, Critical Incidents, and Mindset. Excerpts from teachers’ discussions about conflict and bullying illustrate each concept

Incentives: Getting everyone on board

Motivation from the principal, school board or parents’ group can often jump start new initiatives. A middle school counselor discusses an approach for introducing a Bully Prevention program, called “Don’t Laugh at Me” which is available for downloading by Operation Respect at School administrators have set goals for implementation of the program school wide. At the Homeroom level team teachers will integrate mini-lessons on curriculum topics that teach empathy, perspective taking, and ethical or interpersonal problem solving within the peer groups. The school counselor says, “The belief is that teachers will now have a more open vehicle for addressing behavior – other than referrals to the office for discipline – and good kids will be empowered to challenge bully behavior and harassment in the social environment.”

Catalysts: The spark that ignites action

The change must start somewhere with someone. People can take responsibility and extend themselves even if it is only part time or a bit here and a bit there. Pull together all those factions who think they are powerless to change the situation and start pooling resources, ideas and energy. A teacher enrolled in the course was inspired to initiate community time with her third grade students. She noted, “I read about “morning meetings.” I like this idea. When I taught children younger than third graders I did more of this sort of thing. I think that I want to try the “morning meetings.” I have a perfect rug area in the room where the class can meet together in a circle.”

A social skills teacher-coordinator in an inner city elementary school described a bullying incident involving two girls. “On Friday, I had two girls and their parents in my office for conversation (mediation) as the one daughter was stalking the other in a vicious way. In meeting with the parents (individually beforehand) intense anger was expressed, and threats made so that key staff were alerted to be ready to respond if necessary. However, while tense at moments, the conversation went well and at the end, the families were actually laughing and having fun conversation together. In fact, and this is not unusual, one of the fathers made a funny remark and had everyone laughing, allowing us much needed emotional release.” This teacher is a natural catalyst by structuring mediation and dialog to resolve issues that arise. She recalled a time when a student looked at her at the end of a mediation and said, “Mrs R., are you crying?”

Critical Incidents: Every adversity carries the seed for transformation

An event can often trigger a chain reaction, resulting in either a positive or a negative outcome. Look at the chain reactions from the Columbine tragedy and the trauma of 9-11. A critical incident such as an emergency or disciplinary situation at school offers an opportunity for school staff to understand the home lives of the children and families. A middle school principal in Pennsylvania says, “If I choose to approach each parent as if they are currently doing the best they can, it changes my feelings for them, as well as my response to them. It allows me to approach them as an equal, not quickly jumping to the conclusion that I am the more responsible one, better educated, smarter, etc., and, therefore, have the right to tell them what to do. We work together to help the child, with the school providing all the possible resources it can. If all else fails, I do it for the child, because children deserve our love and attention regardless of how we feel about their parents.”

Even an innocent episode or chance encounter can provide the momentum for bringing about change, as we can see in this coach’s story. “Today, I had a conversation with a teen who is a product of divorce and lives with mom. This teen has not seen dad in over a year and he misses dad dearly. Dad is an addict and lives too far away for a close relationship. However, my heart was broken by the unfolding story that was told. I encouraged the teen to seek professional counseling for some other issues and to perhaps write a Dear Dad letter. I think writing thoughts out on paper is therapeutic.”

Mindset: I know I can

One of the biggest obstacles to the mobilization of the Third Side may be the feeling of disempowerment and personal inability to make a difference. Bullies have been around since the beginning of time; how are we going to change human nature? What types of strategies need to be generated to combat the mindset deterrent?

An administrator at a private co-ed high school, shows that if we teach young children not to tattle, we must also teach them how to get adult help when warranted. “Yesterday I spoke with three high school girls and asked them why they would not report sexual harassment. One of the primary reasons they would not report it was that they had been taught in elementary school not to be a tattle tale. I am wondering if this lesson is altogether positive.”

A high school teacher suggests that students, faculty and the greater community could benefit from training and skill building in listening to one another. She says, “Reflective listening has been difficult for me to do in moments of great emotion – it is hard to be disciplined to the point where you “hold” your emotional response until you truly understand the other person’s point of view. I know each time I have managed to do this, the relationship in question has survived – and each time I have failed to do so, the relationship has suffered. I see a lot of “inflammatory, immediate” reactions in our students, community… (and culture). I think our entire school should be trained in this!”

The types of active interventions shown in the examples enables the Third Side to contain bullying and conflicts proactively through teacher training and classroom morning meetings, resolve conflict as illustrated in Mrs. R’s conference-mediation story, and prevent conflict by making the rules explicit and asking if the child wants to abide by them as in Sarah’s story. Bullying is not just about the bullies and the victims; there is a Third Side that can play a constructive role in transcending bullying behavior.


Claassen-Wilson, D. (2000, Sept-Oct). Restorative justice in schools. The Fourth R, 92, 19-20.

Garbarino, J.(1999) Lost Boys. New York: Free Press

Gibbs, J. (2000) Tribes: A New Way of Learning and Being Together. Center Source Systems.

Goleman, D. (1995) Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books

Katz, N. & Lawyer, J. (1994). Preventing and Managing Conflict at School. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Lantieri, L. & Patti, J. (1996) Waging Peace in our Schools. Boston: Beacon Press

Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school. Oxford, England: Blackwell.

Ury, W. (2002) Must we fight? San Francisco: Jossey Bass


Anita Vestal

Anita Vestal is a flexible idealist in her many life roles: Mediator, Facilitator, Mentor, Researcher, Writer, Teacher and Trainer. Since 1990 she has had a practice in organizational development and mediation with family, workplace, community parties. She has also held positions in Head Start and adult education at various universities… MORE >

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