Quabbin Mediation gets $100K state grant for active bystander training

  • Ralph C. Mahar Regional School in Orange is one of the area schools participating in the Training Active Bystanders program offered by Quabbin Mediation. STAFF File PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 8/20/2019 8:37:22 PM

ORANGE — After receiving no money in the state budget last year, Quabbin Mediation is getting $100,000 for its Training Active Bystanders program.

While just a small drop in the $43.3 billion pool the state has approved for this fiscal year’s spending, Sharon Tracy, executive director and founder of Quabbin Mediation, said the money going to the program will help equip students in area schools with the skills to stand up against bullying, harassment, drug usage and violence.

“These are skills that are transferable to almost any kind of situation,” Tracy said. “(The state funding) is enormous. It allows us to not just work in the schools where we’ve been working, but to expand to new schools.”

Quabbin Mediation, an Orange-based conflict resolution organization since 1995, founded the Training Active Bystanders program in 2006, and has since taught the six-hour course at area schools like Ralph C. Mahar Regional School, Athol High School, Pioneer Valley Regional School, Hopkins Academy in Hadley and Ware Junior/Senior High School. The program’s curriculum has also spread to other New England schools, summer camps and correctional institutions, and even as far as East Los Angeles high schools.

Using a “training-for-trainers” model, the program certifies high school students as active bystander teachers — not only do they learn the skills to intervene in cases of conflict, but they then teach the curriculum to other students.

Tracy estimates that, since the program started, more than 1,500 students have been trained as Training Active Bystanders program teachers, who have then trained more than 15,000 students to be active bystanders — bystanders who stand up to injustices like bullying, or help bullying victims, rather than watch an unfair situation idly.

State funding means not only continuing the program in towns like Orange, Athol and Northfield, but also growing it, Tracy said, bringing it to new schools and teaching the curriculum online as well. Tracy declined to say what schools are currently considering the program, because they have not officially signed on yet. But she added that several area schools have expressed interest, and the state’s financial backing could make the program more attractive.

A Training Active Bystanders program costs around $12,000, Tracy said. Whatever isn’t covered by other sources of funding, like grants or donations, is paid for by the school district.

While facilitated by Quabbin Mediation, the money from the state is administered by the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, a practice indicative of the program’s beginnings and close connections with law enforcement.

In 2000, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office conducted a study of assaults in the North Quabbin region, which yielded concerning results.

“They found that here in the North Quabbin region, we had one of the highest rates of assaults in the state, and the highest rural rates in the country,” Tracy said.

Then, in Turners Falls in 2004, Eric Zieba, 16, was beaten to death with a baseball bat during a conflict with another teen. According to Tracy, the fatal incident occurred after school, and many students later said they knew a fight was going to happen but didn’t know how to intervene.

The startling results of the Sheriff’s Office survey and Zieba’s death necessitated teaching how to intervene “prior to mediation,” which Quabbin Mediation already taught at the time.

“Mediation can help solve a problem that’s already been happening, but we need something that’s prior to mediation,” Tracy said. “We need something in the continuum in violence prevention that gets people to step forward as bystanders.”

After consulting with court officials, police officers, professors and psychologists, Quabbin Mediation launched the Training Active Bystanders program with the Athol and Mahar school districts, and with local police officers — including current Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr. — acting as instructors.

During the course, specific situations are discussed, and students come up with ways to take action against situations like bullying or drug abuse.

“We do not provide solutions,” Tracy said, emphasizing that students come up with solutions unique to the people and places around them. “We basically teach situational analysis.”

Mahar’s dean of students reported in 2015 that suspensions had dropped to around 100 per year compared to around 1,000 before the program began, Tracy said.

“When you’re having an upperclassman teach you this, the person teaching you is part of your culture, they’re part of that school culture,” Tracy said.

“One thing that comes up consistently in recent years is substance abuse,” Tracy added. “Alcohol has always come up, but as of late, opioids have come up more and more. Students come up with solutions themselves — what we do if someone is having a problem, or a parent or sibling is having a problem.”

Tracy said Quabbin Mediation and the Sheriff’s Office both approach the program as a preventative program for negative behaviors.

“Many of the people in jail are there because of trauma that happened to them when they were younger,” she said. “Because TAB intervenes when the trauma is occurring, and abates the trauma for the targets, it ends up changing things down the road.”

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.


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