Here's what the big fight was about a couple of weeks ago between two fifth-graders at Bradbury Heights Elementary School:
Damond Foster, his face flushed and shoulders heaving, explained that Kelvetta Bennett had been telling people that he gobbled his food, that she'd seen him stuffing down a Twinkie.
"First of all, I don't even eat Twinkies," Damond said as he gripped the table in the guidance counselor's office and held back tears.
Kelvetta said Damond was making too big a deal out of it. Her face scrunched up, she fired back her own complaint: Damond once told people her house was "dirty."
"He was joning on me!" she said, schoolyard slang meaning Damond was mocking her to get laughs from the kids.
Seemingly petty arguments are no laughing matter these days to students and staff at the Capitol Heights school. Recently, they had a terrible reminder of where little taunts can lead.
An 8-year-old schoolmate, Chelsea Cromartie, was killed last month when hit by one of several stray bullets that crashed through the window of her aunt's home in Northeast Washington.
Why were the shots fired?
The two young men arrested for the crime were trying to avenge insults about the kind of clothes one of them wore, according to D.C. police.
Heading Off Worse Trouble
Bradbury Heights (like all Prince George's County schools and most other public schools in the Washington area) uses a technique called peer mediation. Whether it's Twinkies or teasing, peer mediation gets kids to help other kids resolve their disagreements peacefully.
Sixth-graders Raeshayla Murphy and Jasmine Butler, both 11, listened as Damond and Kelvetta described their anger and hurt feelings. Jasmine and Raeshayla, two of 25 student peer mediators at Bradbury Heights, were assigned to help the younger kids deal with the fight that had exploded the day before.
Mediators settle many school arguments that can seem petty -- boyfriend-girlfriend tiffs, double-dutch disputes, somebody throwing cicadas around. In a typical school year, mediators at Bradbury Heights tackle 150 to 200 disputes.
"It's always over some stupid little thing!" Raeshayla said. The taunting that may have led to Chelsea's death doesn't sound all that different, said Raeshayla, adding that the people involved "should have talked it out."
"If they had worked through it, like we do with mediation, it wouldn't have gotten out of hand."
Both sixth-graders have heard gunfire in their neighborhoods. "I've seen people driving around and carrying guns," said Jasmine.
Peer Peace Patrol
Whenever counselor Vera Jones hears about a problem between students, she assigns each one a trained mediator and schedules a session in her office.
There are rules for these sessions: no name-calling, no fighting, no cursing, no interrupting.
"We're here to help you solve the situation," Raeshayla said to Kelvetta and Damond, "not tell you who's right or wrong."
As the two younger students related the "he-said, she-said," the mediators listened, clarifying along the way.
"How long have you two known each other?" Jasmine asked.
They figured it out: more than five years.
"How did you feel when this happened?" Raeshayla asked.
"Embarrassed," Damond said. "I think she should stop saying stuff about people all the time."
"Hurt," Kelvetta said.
"What are y'all going to do to solve this problem?" Jasmine asked. Kelvetta wanted an apology, which threw Damond, since he felt he had been the victim.
"I never said I was going to apologize!" he wailed. "SHE said something about ME!"
"She remembers that thing you said about her living room," Jasmine reminded him gently.
Finally, the two fifth-graders signed a "contract" agreeing to apologize and not say hurtful things. Damond's hands no longer gripped the table, and Kelvetta's sneer had dissolved.
They shook hands and left.
Will there be peace between them now? "Whew," Raeshayla said, "I sure hope so!"
-- Fern Shen