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Pursuing a peaceful path in conflicts

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It was a senseless, brutal attack: a teenager storming up to a New York City teacher, swinging a baseball bat, clubbing him in the head until he lost consciousness, and leaving him to die. The teacher lived, and for the next several years, he grappled not only with the trauma of the violence but with a feeling of guilt: What had he done to deserve that attack?

The case was one of many that went through New York's criminal-justice system. But it also ended up in the hands of Rochester's Center for Dispute Settlement, an organization whose work is often as low-key and unpublicized as its executive director, Andrew Thomas.

Thomas is retiring this spring after 26 years leading the organization he helped found. In that position, both Thomas and his organization have been involved with numerous criminal-justice issues. But equally important, and more numerous, are cases involving disputes between ordinary people: divorces, custody disputes, arguments between neighbors, disputes over wills and estates.

Thomas has been the architect of an organization that started as a small regional office of the American Arbitration Association and went on to become an independent mediation and dispute-settlement agency, the third oldest office of its kind in the country.

Today, CDS has 13 offices in eight counties and handles more than 3,000 cases a year. While its work and importance may not be familiar to many people outside of the legal and law enforcement communities in Rochester, CDS has a national and international reputation. Delegations from other countries frequently come to the US and spend a week at CDS.

"We've had people from the Middle East, South Africa --- all over the world," says Thomas. "They want to learn about our programs and see how they can take them back home."

Americans seem to have a propensity for solving conflicts through violence or litigation. CDS has pursued an alternative route: peaceful resolution.

Thomas began his career as assistant youth director with the YMCA and later became director of the City of Rochester's human-services department. In 1979, the American Arbitration Association hired him to head its Rochester offices during Rochester's emotional school-integration conflict. Almost immediately, he was involved in making the office an independent agency.

The field of mediation wasn't a big one at the time, and, he says, "I can't say I knew I was making the big career move."

The next year, Thomas was tapped for work that has had a major impact on one of the most difficult and most sensitive types of conflicts: those between police and community residents. The RochesterTimes-Union, the now-defunct afternoon daily newspaper, had run a series of articles on police behavior, including charges of police brutality. City officials appointed Thomas and the late Charles Crimi, a prominent, respected attorney, to investigate the cases cited in the T-U's report as well as to review police department policies and procedures.

Released in 1981, the Crimi-Thomas Report contained more than 100 recommendations and led to the city's first citizen-review process for complaints lodged against Rochester police. CDS now trains the members of the citizens review board.

While that kind of involvement has periodically put CDS in the spotlight, the bulk of the agency's cases are not that high-profile. But its work impacts thousands of lives every year.

For example, the New York City teacher beaten by his student wanted to meet the boy. The teenager had nearly killed him, and the teacher wanted to know why, says Thomas: "Why did you do this to me? What did I do to you? Did I do something to a member of your family? Did I say something? What did I do to deserve this?"

CDS was called in, and after two or three years of discussions with prison officials, the agency was able to get permission for the teacher to talk with the teenager. As it turned out, the youth didn't know why he had assaulted the teacher. "He admitted that it was his lifestyle. He had some problems with drugs. He also said he went to the teacher and asked for help, and he needed it right then."

"He said he was so angry he took a baseball bat and he tried to kill him," says Thomas.

After the two talked, two things happened. For the teacher, "mediation was extremely important, because it helped him stop feeling guilty," says Thomas. "It never occurred to him that he wasn't to blame. And he finally accepted it and walked away. He was able to go on with his life."

As for the teenager, who ended up in the Elmira correctional facility with a 15-year sentence: "One of our people did a follow-up with him," says Thomas. "He was doing very well there, but he attributed his turnaround to that meeting. It brought home the severity of his act."

And, says Thomas, the youth said that meeting his victim was tougher than being incarcerated. "Communication can bring closure that even a prison term can't," says Thomas.

That attitude is characteristic of Thomas. A soft-spoken man, he uses phrases like "everyone has value" and "everyone's opinion matters." And such convictions are the cornerstone to successful mediation, says Thomas.

Mediation isn't intended to replace the court system, says Thomas, but it can create a safe place to air differences. And, he says, you can win a case in court and still feel as if you lost.

"If the person is looking for someone to blame or they are looking for a settlement in the form of money, then they're going to court," says Thomas. "But that isn't always a way to bring settlement or closure."

Thomas uses the example of two neighbors who get into a personal dispute. First, one calls the police. "Next time, the other one calls the police. Then the other calls the police, and this time, he gets an attorney. It keeps escalating: 'You caused me pain. I'm going to make sure you feel what I feel, so now you're going to court, and you can miss work and pay legal fees.'"

"There are underlying issues," says Thomas, "and they're using the courts to get attention, to make that point. But these folks will never be able to go to court and discuss their personal issues."

CDS, which now offers 19 different programs for peaceful conflict resolution, has a staff of 37 and a pool of 175 highly trained volunteers. Cases come in from a variety of sources: law enforcement, the district attorney's offices, school systems, walk-ins. And its four divisions work with the city, towns, and villages; with family courts over custody and visitation disputes; with the Rochester and Irondequoit police departments and the MonroeCounty sheriff's department.

"The hardest part is getting people to the table as early as possible," he says. "Once they get too positioned, the need to win takes over. They begin to lose the good faith."

"Conflict can always generate pain," says Thomas, and then each party becomes intent on causing pain to the other.

If the parties in a dispute can agree to talk to one another, says Thomas, they'll reach a resolution 75 percent of the time. The other 25 percent may need a little time to think about it. Then, says Thomas, "they usually drop their charge."

The hardest conflicts to resolve? Those involving moral issues, says Thomas. "Disputes over the scarcity of resources can lead to physical confrontation," he says, "but even more difficult are those that arise over values, morals, and religious beliefs: 'This is gospel, and that's all I want to hear.' That sort of thing can lead to civil war."

Peaceful resolutions to disputes don't have to be limited to domestic disputes and arguments between neighbors, says Thomas; they can be used at the global level, too.

"The role of mediation, whether it is here or working with delegates in the Middle East, Iraq, is to listen to each other's differences and find ways to respect each other despite those differences," says Thomas. "It's not always about a 'win-win.' Getting people to a point where they have a resolution they can live with is, by itself, a different level of understanding."

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