Mediation Services finds solutions for conflicts

There are two sides to every story. A mediator’s job is to get the people on each side to calmly express their opinion and direct them to a reasonable solution.

St. Francis High School Principal Paul Neubauer shared a story on how mediation helped him and students who were suspended after spray painting bomb threats on the school’s doors. Photo by Eric Hagen
St. Francis High School Principal Paul Neubauer shared a story on how mediation helped him and students who were suspended after spray painting bomb threats on the school’s doors. Photo by Eric Hagen

Mediation Services of Anoka County has been doing this for 25 years. Alice Johnson has met with husbands and wives going through divorces and trying to decide how to share the wealth and time with their kids. Johnson and her husband Richard Jefferson have also mediated in schools when there are harassment or food throwing problems.

Gwen Neumann has worked in Anoka County’s conciliation court. She typically gets 15 to 30 minutes to get two parties to reach an agreement before a judge settles the issue for them.

Mary Ann Broos has also worked in conciliation court and dealt with shared parenting issues, which could or could not have included married couples.

What these three and the other 40 or so mediators have in common is they are volunteering their time. They receive no stipends or mileage reimbursement.

“Their payment is the satisfaction of helping people resolve their conflicts — and sometimes there’s no resolution and that makes the payment even less,” said Dave Bartholomay, executive director of Mediation Services for Anoka County.

The volunteer mediators and staff of Mediation Services of Anoka County put on a “Breakfast with Champions” fund-raiser the morning of May 10 at St. Stephen’s Church in Anoka. The goal was to raise funds for the services at a time when funding has decreased.

According to Bartholomay, the annual budget in recent years has been around $175,000. The budget decreased when the organization lost the $40,000 it had received annually from the United Way.

Bartholomay said the United Way began focusing its efforts on basic needs, access to health care and early childhood education. Mediation does not fall into these categories, so funding went away.

Today, the biggest revenue sources are the government contracts for services.

“Mediation is cost-effective,” said Anoka County Board Chairperson Rhonda Sivarajah. “It saves time and money for both parties involved as well as the public. But more importantly, it helps to mend those broken relationships, not only between family members, but between neighbors and friends.”

Sivarajah shared a story of how some people had left the Anoka County Master Gardener program because of some issues. The mediator got the gardeners together and got them to agree on a resolution, she said.

A mediator can have any background. For example, Johnson was formerly a staff person in the Minnesota House of Representatives and later served as a state representative from 1987 to 2000. Broos has worked in human resources, presently for Sears. Neumann is a special education teacher.

The keynote speaker for the breakfast was former Minnesota Vikings running back Oscar Reed, who played with the Purple from 1968 through 1974 and for the Atlanta Falcons in 1975.

Reed did not plan to be a mediator after retiring from the NFL, but principals kept asking him to talk to kids. Then he began mediating issues at a Native American tribe reservation where sitting in a circle and speaking about problems is part of the culture.

He began stopping by schools more often in and outside Minnesota. He eventually learned from a state government employee that there are grants that would pay him for this mediation service. For the past 30 years, Reed has met with students in circle groups every single week.

He works the most with St. Louis Park High School and the principal has told him how big of a difference Reed has made in the school, he said. According to Reed, the school is culturally diverse and he noticed that kids of color were getting suspended far more than white students and the suspensions were sometimes for little things like running or talking too loud in the hall.

Reed made a point to get kids of different ethnic backgrounds together to discuss what was on their mind and the principal would come if invited to hear what the students had to say, he said.

The St. Louis Park School District is looking at making these circle group restorative justice sessions part of the district’s policies and Reed said he recently held a training session with teachers.

St. Francis High School Principal Paul Neubauer told the story of how he had to suspend five students who usually do not get in trouble for one year because they spray painted bomb threats on the doors of the high school after the Minnesota Vikings lost to the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship game.

Mediation gave each side a chance to understand where the other side was coming from and Neubauer said he found out the students had no malicious intent.

They just wanted a two-hour delay of school the day after the game, but Neubauer said he had explain how what they did was wrong and he had to throw the book at them because of public outcry about safety. Now when he sees the students in the community, it is a more positive experience.

Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo said there is an old saying that if you want to convert someone, make them part of the decision making process.

Mediation Services’ volunteers started to work in Anoka County conciliation court two years ago to try to get two parties to reach a solution before a judge finds it for them.

Only five of the 87 Minnesota counties have mediation services available in conciliation court, according to Anoka County Assistant Chief Judge Douglas Meslow.

“Parties come in thinking they’re geared up for battle and yet many of them walk away. Instead of snarling at each other and being mad at the judges they walk out with a smile and a hand shake and an agreement,” Meslow said.

The demand on mediators will only grow because the Minnesota Legislature has increased the dollar limit for someone to go through conciliation court. The old limit was $7,500. The limit will be $10,000 by Aug. 1 and $15,000 two years from now, Meslow said.

This means the court system will need to lean more on Mediation Services and its volunteers, which Meslow thanked for their community service. “That’s going to mean two things,” he said.

“It’s going to mean more cases and it’s going to mean higher stakes, which means it’s going to be all the more important that we have all the resources available that we can to get good resources, to get good resolutions.”