The University of Maryland and the city of College Park should set up a mediation center to resolve conflicts between students and residents, a committee of residents, students and faculty members has recommended.
In a recently issued report, the "Civility Commission" said that the proposed mediation center should provide a trained, impartial mediator to define the nature of a dispute between students and residents and help the two sides reach a mutually agreeable solution. Use of the mediation process would be voluntary.
City residents long have complained about student behavior at off-campus parties and about parking problems the parties create, while students complain that they are discriminated against by some landlords, merchants and residents.
The 12-member commission, formed in September to try to ease tensions between the two groups, also announced 12 "guidelines for civility," which include recommendations to "respect each other's legitimate needs for privacy, autonomy and the quiet enjoyment of one's property" and to "consider the social consequences of our behavior (as if our behavior were to become a norm for the community as a whole)."
The commission report was issued less than a week after a group of city residents filed a class action suit in Prince George's County Circuit Court seeking to stop members of a fraternity from using an apartment building at Rhode Island and College avenues.
Del. Pauline H. Menes (D-Prince George's), the commission's chairwoman, said that one purpose of the mediation center would be to head off similar disputes before they reach the point where legal action is taken.
"If you bring both parties together early on, they can deal with each other at a lower level of anger and come to a reasonable solution," she said, adding that the mediation center would provide a convenient, informal way to resolve disputes.
The mediator would not make a ruling on the dispute, as a judge or an arbitrator would, she said, but rather would "bring the two parties together and help them negotiate" by listening and making suggestions. The dispute would be brought to the mediation service only if both parties agreed, she said.
College Park Mayor Alvin Kushner said that the mediation center, which would be the joint responsibility of the city and the university, is "worth trying" because "obviously, what we've tried in the past hasn't worked."
University Chancellor John B. Slaughter said he thinks that the mediation center is "an excellent idea . . . . For the first time in recent memory, the university and the city are identifying ways to take joint responsibility for problems that need to be addressed . . . . We never had that kind of structure in place before."
Slaughter said the center is necessary because "there are limits to what each of us [the city and the university] can do alone." For instance, he said, contrary to what many city residents believe, off-campus students "have some measure of independence" from the university and "are not necessarily bound by rules and procedures defined by the administration." The mediation center, he said, would "provide a mechanism whereby legitimate concerns can be addressed and, hopefully, resolved."
Under the commission's recommendations, the city would provide the room in which the hearings would be held, as well as a part-time secretary and a lawyer for "occasional consultation." The city also would develop a brochure to publicize and explain the mediation center.
The university would provide a mediation expert to coordinate the center and establish a program to train students, faculty and residents as mediators.
The cost of these services, the commission said, would be minimal. The City Council and the university are scheduled to act on the proposal this month.
The commission also recommended that the city and university appoint a 12-member advisory committee, composed of students, faculty and residents, to oversee the mediation center.
Burlin Texier, who lives across the street from the fraternity members involved in the class action suit and was one of those who filed suit, said he thinks the mediation center is long overdue.
"The university has always been reluctant to deal with student problems off campus," he said. "As long as everyone is willing to mediate, this could be a solution."
Tom Cooper, also known as "King Tom II," the newly elected president of the university's Student Government Association, said he thinks the mediation center would be effective "because it addresses each problem with a sense of fairness."
"It solves problems on a case-by-case basis," Cooper said, "and is fair to each party."
Cooper, who jokingly pledged during his campaign to bulldoze the homes of residents who complain about noisy fraternity parties in order to make space for a beer-filled moat, said the commission report "opens up a new attitude of respect" between students and residents.
"I hope this will go a long way toward solving the problem," he added.
Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Howard Chasanow, who represented the city on the civility commission, had more modest goals.
"If it [the mediation center] can ease tensions in just a few situations a year, it will have served its purpose," Chasanow said.