Partners Awaken Cultural Change

The Bureau of HR at Connecticut's Department of Education fought heavy skepticism to improve school safety and bring cooperation to the labor-management relationship.

February 27, 2000
Walk down the hallway of any U.S. high school today, and it won’t take long before you realize something has changed. And we’re not just talking about students wearing baggy pants.

"Many kids feel they need to give off the impression that they're tough. They're scared of [seeming] vulnerable," says Michelle Robles, a senior at Bullard Havens vocational-technical school in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

In the past few years we’ve seen this "you-can’t-hurt-me" attitude evoke a number of shocking events on school grounds. Yet before most Americans knew a place called Littleton, Colorado, even existed, the Bureau of Human Resources at Connecticut’s Department of Education took a hard stand against violence in the state’s regional vocational-technical school (RVTS) system.

"Teachers were becoming afraid of some students," says Vivian Kotler-Haas, the Bureau’s EAP consultant. "I was getting an increasing number of calls from teachers, especially from inner-city schools, who felt they weren’t able to do their jobs. They felt threatened by students, and they didn’t know how to rectify their fears to meet the needs of these kids."

Late homework was the least of their worries. Complaints often included disrespect, intimidation, classroom disruptions and threats--issues that many teachers wouldn’t have expected, much less were trained to handle only several years ago.

Statistics supported teachers’ fears. During the 1995 to 1996 school year, students in the state's vo-tech system lost 16,000 school days due to suspensions. During the same year, Connecticut vocational-tech students took part in a national survey which reported that more than half had threatened to harm another student or teacher.

Says Aaron Silvia, president of the teachers’ union for the state’s vocational-tech school system: "There was a permissiveness outside of the schools that we hadn’t seen in the classroom until a few years ago. Then there was a carryover of that permissive manner into the school as to what students thought was acceptable and what the schools thought was acceptable. The staff was having difficulty dealing with this new mindset that kids were bringing in."

As director of staff development at the Department of Education’s Bureau of Human Resources, Marilyn Quinn knew this problem needed an answer, but it would require effort from all sides of the school system.

"Teachers were feeling like they didn’t have the skills they needed to deal with the level of problems they were having in their classrooms, and it was taking time away from their teaching," says Quinn. "We agreed that this problem was important and that we could most effectively bring about changes by working with the school administration and the teachers’ union." Therefore, the Bureau of human resources initiated a partnership with the state vocational-technical school superintendent’s office and with the teachers’ union, the State Vocational Federation of Teachers.

Together, the trio sought a conflict-resolution and mediation program that would create a safer learning environment for all RVTSS staff and students, thus improving productivity.

While conflict resolution isn’t new, the Bureau of HR’s delivery of their program is worthy of the Optimas Award for Partnership particularly because they worked with limited resources, and they reacted quickly in response to their teachers’ needs--which in turn enhanced the otherwise adversarial relationship between labor and management.

Overcoming the HR challenges of a public organization.
The HR team decided to target the vocational-tech schools because administration for that school system falls under the direction of the Connecticut Board of Education. Otherwise, they’d have to operate through several layers of other state agencies. "It’s a nice arrangement because we statutory control over the administration of the contract negotiations," says Dick Wilber, chief of the bureau. "Otherwise we would have to work through other levels of bureaucracy, and we wouldn’t have the influence over the process that we do under the law."

However, being a smaller subset of the state’s school system in no way means the group is small. Among the 17 high schools and three satellites in the Connecticut vocational-technical school community there are 10,000 full-time high school students, 7,000 mostly part-time adult students and 1,400 teachers, administrators and support staff.

"Because of the scope of the problem," says Quinn, "it could only be addressed if everyone helped out--not just the assistant principal who traditionally dealt with discipline problems, but students, teachers, bus drivers, janitors, administrators, parents and community organizations." Not only is the staff diverse in terms of position, but all 20 sites are spread out in urban, suburban and rural areas, each with unique problems that vary depending on the region.

Based on the number and variety of people the program needed to reach, it isn’t surprising that the conflict-resolution program needed financial support. Wilber explains the program wouldn’t have been possible without a $130,000 grant that was awarded to them in 1996. "I went to a Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services conference, where I learned of the availability of grant money for collaborations between labor and management. I came back from that conference and approached the teachers’ union, who also had heard about it. Using the direction of labor relations, which falls under the Bureau of HR’s area of responsibility, I was able to use this as a vehicle to approach the superintendent in the vo-tech schools, and that’s really when it began."

For Quinn, the grant meant teachers as well as regular staff would receive the conflict-resolution skills that were now so imperative to their jobs. With dual motives in mind--school-environment safety and labor-management relations--this was HR’s chance to really prove to these teachers that its intentions were good, and that it was making a strong effort to support its employees.

However, their audience wasn’t as receptive to the idea as they had hoped.

Like many HR departments at private organizations, the Bureau of HR wasn’t taken seriously at first. While the conflict-resolution program sure sounded like a good idea, it was tough to earn teachers’ faith. "This is a statewide system with 20 different locations with varying degrees of problems, interests, populations and demographics," Wilber explains. "Selling this program and getting buy-in from the faculty in the schools required a lot of effort for them to believe that we were serious--that this wasn’t going to be, ‘Here comes Hartford again with another half-baked idea and it’s going to go away.’"

Union president Aaron Silvia adds, "One of the difficulties on my end was the potential perception of having sold out--that you’re in bed with management. Even if the reasons were explained as to why it’s in our best interest to collaborate in this endeavor, there’s suspicion that there’ll be a carryover into other areas where there shouldn’t be collaboration--when we have to stand our ground and fight, us against them."

Not only were teachers wary of HR’s intentions, but top management, whose support was crucial to the program, wasn’t exactly thrilled about the bureau’s proposal, either. "Until we were able to identify some data that this program was needed, some people were unsure of the value and merit of this program," says Drew Soltys, educational consultant for the superintendent’s office.

Add to this the irritatingly constant changeover in union leadership and top management--for example, the role of RVTS superintendent had changed hands three times since 1995. It was like a perpetual cycle in which Quinn and Wilber had to persuade new leaders that the program would work. Meanwhile, the two have been in the Bureau of HR for more than 10 years. They remained--and still are--the stable force behind the project, ensuring that every newcomer to the table understands the benefits of collaboration.

It took some compromise to turn the tide. All sides had to consider what was most important: safety. "There were differences in opinion over certain issues," explains Soltys, who with the assistant superintendent played a major role in convincing skeptics that the initiative was a win-win. "However, it is part of the mission of the school system to have a safe learning environment. No one could argue that this was an issue that both groups, union and management, had vested interest."

What pushed HR over the buy-in hurdle was the serious nature of the topic and shared interest in improving the situation. By teaching conflict-resolution skills, HR was trying to change the unhealthy culture that was growing not only in the state’s vo-tech schools but also in schools nationwide. After that realization, it didn’t matter whether the Bureau had good intentions or not. Something had to be done, and HR was willing to stick its neck out by developing the conflict-resolution program. Soltys explains: "Student safety is a common interest that will always supercede differences of opinion between labor and management." The school system, from union to management, strongly agreed.

Let the change begin!
To begin the culture change, the labor-management project team clarified the purpose of the conflict-resolution program: to raise awareness of ways to prevent conflicts that could damage the school environment, as well as ways to intervene when problems occur.

The Connecticut partners followed the lead of a conflict-resolution program that had been in place at the public school system in Brooklyn, New York, which was reaping great results. However, before they could teach students, they had to teach themselves. The bulk of the grant money went toward training the RVTS faculty and staff in basic conflict-resolution skills during the first two years of the project.

Bonnie Edmondson was one of six trainers who took the workshops to all the schools and conducted training workshops to the 1,400 RVTS staff members in 1996. "We went around to the schools and trained the staff, saying, ‘This is what your students will be learning, and we want you to learn, too, so that you can form a common language with them,’" she explains. "This was a true effort to change the culture of the school."

Each school’s curriculum was customized to that school’s needs, depending on its most challenging problems. Topics that were raised most often included communication skills, negotiation, and anger management. The sessions were conducted over a period of six months. The project team then asked Edmondson to spearhead the integration of the program full time for one year, putting her teaching on hiatus. During this time, she developed resource libraries throughout the school system, and was available to provide additional training.

"The training raised awareness about how vital these skills are, and that it’s never too late to start adjusting your own behavior and modeling behavior for students," says Edmondson. "Change doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a series of changes that must happen over time, but this is an awesome beginning."

After the staff was trained, then came the students. Peer mediation was the primary intervention strategy. Whereas the staff training passed down conflict-resolution skills to students, peer mediation had a more direct impact. Each year, several students at each school are trained to be peer mediators, who in turn help teach other students through peer mediation and by example. Mediation offers case-by-case assistance in a non-intimidating, level playing ground for students who act out when confronted with a problem.

"A lot of the conflicts arise from gossip and he-said/she-said situations," says Susan Cribari, school psychologist and peer mediation advisor at Bullard Havens in Bridgeport. "Most times these kids haven’t been hurt before, so they can’t articulate what they’re feeling. These meetings define the emotions that are underneath the anger, and show students that they’re being heard and understood--most importantly by the person with whom they have conflict." Bullard Havens conducted 41 mediations during the 1998–1999 school year.

Michelle Robles, one of the peer mediators at Bullard Havens, adds: "Our job is to make them realize, ‘I could have handled that situation differently.’" Robles herself used peer mediation to resolve problems before she was trained to be a mediator two years ago. Though mediators volunteer to complete a number of training workshops, all RVTS students go through a 15-hour conflict-resolution component of a Life Skills class, which is a required health class that all 10,000 students take during each of their four years in the school system.

As a peer mediator, Robles offers an objective ear for other students, but she also informally applies the skills she learned to her personal life. "Last year a student picked a fight with me, and my first reaction was to get defensive," Robles recounts. "I got angry. But I realized I needed to talk with this other student. Now, instead of having a third person to mediate conflict, I can handle it on my own. It just takes some patience."

The conflict-resolution program has opened yet another door for Robles; though she has been studying machine drafting at the technical school, she’d like to pursue a degree in counseling.

School is the first work environment.
Together, the staff training, peer mediation and student life skills classes have been the basis of a very successful program. For example, peer mediation at E.C. Goodwin vocational-technical school in New Britain, Connecticut, settled 53 conflicts the year after the program began, potentially averting 36 suspensions, or 100 suspension days.

However, remember the original goal: raise awareness and teach skills. "Through the training, and then the follow up, the mission was accomplished," says Silvia of the teachers’ union. "Since that’s finished, now there are other developments to be done. This was only round one. Now we’re ready for rounds two and three."

Next, HR is bringing peer mediation for employees into the ring. "Because of the many inquiries we’ve received, we’ve had to turn some peer mediator applicants away. That tells me teachers see these skills as a benefit," says Quinn.

And, of course, learning is never finished, so the program is ongoing. Every year brings in a new group of students that need to learn the same skills. Fortunately, the conflict-resolution program’s long-term effects extend beyond the school system into workplaces all over Connecticut. "With this program, we’re offering students non-violent ways to settle conflicts," explains Joe LaVorgna, director of Bullard Havens in Bridgeport. "Kids shouldn’t fight not because it’s wrong but because it’s contrary to the workplace for which we’re preparing them--contrary to the very nature of a vo-tech school. It’s not about how we talk with each other but about how to work effectively."

In teaching students this lesson, labor and management also have taught themselves a thing or two about working effectively. While there are still disagreements regarding some issues, the cooperation they found in the development of the conflict-resolution program has opened communication. Now union leaders and management meet monthly, and discussion isn’t limited to the conflict-resolution program.

"Once you start to get along and communicate as we have now, we meet about issues that go beyond school climate and school safety. We discuss many issues that we wouldn’t have before," says Soltys of the superintendent’s office. "We now have a permanent way for communicating between union and management, and it’s because of this program; it was the catalyst."

If their relationship needed a catalyst, then it’s the Bureau of HR that acted as the mad chemist. The potentially volatile mix of labor and management promptly responded to the need for cultural change thanks to HR’s efforts.

Quinn couldn’t have asked for a better reaction. "Everyone understood that no single group could do this alone," she says. "We really had to all work together because this was a huge, ambitious undertaking. We really needed each other to make this work."

Workforce, March 2000, Vol. 79, No. 3, pp. 72-78.