Joshua Grier, right, listens to a peer mediator during a training session with fellow sixth-graders Emily Brefo, left, and Cayla Hall. The program at Kettering Middle School aims to encourage better communication and peaceful conflict resolution among students. (Erich Wagner/The Gazette)

Joshua Grier, 12, of Upper Marlboro said he was upset that a former friend at Kettering Middle School had joined others in imitating him.

“Cayla’s always laughing at me and making jokes about me,” said Joshua, a sixth-grader.

“He’s not cool, he’s lame,” sixth-grader Cayla Hall, 11, of Upper Marlboro shot back.

After a few minutes, Kettering Middle School Principal Amin Salaam cut in, asking a class of 18 students what went right and wrong in their small-group simulations of peer mediation sessions.

The sessions, which feature students acting out arguments, are part of the training for the Upper Marlboro school’s new peer mediation program, which will start at the end of the month.

“My mediator did a good job of making us feel comfortable in the situation,” Cayla said.

Once fully trained, peer mediators will meet with feuding students and ask open-ended questions that get students to reflect on how the argument started, their own actions and how to resolve the dispute themselves.

Prince George’s County public schools spokeswoman Quan Wilson said Kettering Middle is the 12th school, and third middle school, in the county to institute some form of peer mediation program.

Diane Powell, director of the county schools system’s Department of Student Engagement and Support Services, said peer mediation programs are “highly effective” throughout the county, in part because of the voluntary nature of the program.

“Students have to want to come to the table to resolve the conflict,” Powell said. “And mediators are neutral. They don’t take sides or tell the students how to solve their problems. They just set the ground rules.”

Salaam, who became Kettering’s principal in August, said that although a program had not been in place in his previous schools, he got the idea for the program after having to resolve student conflicts himself. All of the training scenarios he employs are bases on actual arguments he has dealt with since arriving at the school, he said.

“I wanted the students to learn how to solve these problems themselves, using adult strategies,” Salaam said. “So many times [when I have to intervene in a conflict], I find the students were already friends beforehand and just got into a disagreement. And by and large, they’re friends again afterward.”

Salaam said he conducts the training during the school’s enrichment period three days a week. Once ready, mediators will meet privately with students who agree to meet for mediation, along with guidance counselor supervision.

Salaam said he was confident that as more students take part in a mediation, either of their own accord or after being recommended by their teachers, they will have learned to handle disagreements completely on their own.

“Middle school is a transition period for students,” he said. “They have more responsibilities and have to act more adult [than in elementary school], but they don’t always have the skills to do that yet.”

Joshua said he volunteered for the program because he “wanted to be a leader” in school. He said he sees the need for peer mediation, whether for conflict resolution or simply taking responsibility for one’s actions.

“I can see some friends, they don’t have to be in conflicts, but they might just make the wrong choices sometimes,” he said.