Mending Fences- Professor stresses the value of peer mediation skills, conflict resolution

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Fights and behavioral problems can be a huge problem for school kids. But peace is more prevalent when peer mediation programs are in place.

Cooley law professor Nancy Wonch - who chairs the Professional Responsibility Department, the Honor Council, and teaches Professional Responsibility, Mediation and Negotiation and Confrontation - has volunteered her time and skills for 17 years to help more than 2,000 Lansing public school children learn ways to achieve productive, peaceful conflict resolution.

The Flint native started in 1994 when her older son was a fourth grade student at Post Oak Elementary School in Lansing. When the school had a "switch day," inviting parents to teach kids things that weren't part of the curriculum like golf, tennis, soccer, and juggling, Wonch was stumped.

"The only thing I could juggle was my calendar," she says. "But the last category was called peer mediation. Teaching kids to talk out their conflicts instead of fighting. I figured a lawyer would be a great fit because when it comes to conflict resolution, lawyers are supposed to be the alternative, in our society, to shooting it out in the street.

"I picked up a commercial curriculum and had a fun, interactive class with 20 fourth-graders and I was hooked. Kids are so much more open to facilitative mediation than adults. It was truly rewarding to see them adopt the principles of the program.

"I was the president of the Ingham County Bar Association and I wanted to leave a lasting legacy so I suggested that we start a program pairing lawyers with schools to teach kids peer mediation. With grants from the State Bar of Michigan Foundation and the Ingham County Bar Foundation and many volunteer lawyers, we did that for several years, until finally, the federal government funded mediation programs in all of the Lansing schools for three years."

When she joined the law faculty at Cooley in 2002, Wonch further developed the program with the support of Cooley President and Dean Don LeDuc, Cooley Adjunct Professor Anne Smiley, and Cooley students.

The program, that received the Nanci Klein Award from the State Bar of Michigan Alternative Dispute Resolution Section in 2006, also teaches about 70 Lansing High School students conflict resolution skills during a two-day-long program every year.

Statistically, fights and behavioral problems decrease when a fully supported peer mediation program is in place because students learn ways to achieve productive, peaceful conflict resolution that preserves the dignity, respect and relationship of those involved.

"Students are afraid of violence and they want to learn how to solve problems without it," Wonch says. "If you give students the framework for how to peacefully resolve conflicts, they will take what they learn and put it into action."

Her passion took Wonch last summer to Thailand, to spend three months studying peer mediation and conflict resolution programs at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. She was one of only six people from the United States selected for a 2010 Rotary World Peace Fellowship; and one of 50 scholars from 40 countries selected.

"I learned from these programs to make our program better and to promote building conflict management skills into high school curricula everywhere, thereby taking a viable step toward a more peaceful world," she says.

"I've always been a 'think globally, act locally' kind of person. Living in Thailand taught me that we have to act globally too. The poverty and violence confronting refugees along that Thai-Burma border, the struggle for democracy of the Thai people, the terrible legacies of colonialism in Southeast Asia and our own country's involvement there during the '60s and '70s, particularly Cambodia, and the environmental issues confronting all of Southeast Asia currently impact all of us as well them.

Wonch earned her bachelor's degree from Eastern Michigan University, and her law degree, cum laude, from Cooley.

"I wanted a profession as opposed to a job," she says. "We had just moved to Lansing and Cooley was graduating its first class. I thought the degree would be a portable, practical one to coincide with my husband's PhD. in education."

Wonch is past president of the Women Lawyers Association of Mid-Michigan, the Ingham County Bar Association, and Legal Aid of Central Michigan. She served for six years as a board member of the Attorney Discipline Board, and a member of the State Bar of Michigan Subcommittees on Professional and Judicial Ethics, for seven years, two years as chair.

She is the president of the board of directors of Advent House Ministries, serving the homeless community. She is also the chairperson of the Lansing Educational Advancement Foundation, and presided over the Lansing School District Citizen Bond Forum. In 2002, she co-chaired a successful school bond campaign, resulting in the building of the first new school in Lansing in more than 30 years and she was a commissioner for the Lansing Board of Water and Light from 2000-05.

She has received numerous awards and honors including 1997 Lawyer of the Year by Michigan Lawyers Weekly, the 1998 Champion of Justice Award by the State Bar of Michigan, the 1998 Resolution Tribute by the Ingham County Bar Association, a 1999 Hall of Fame designation from the Ingham County Bar Association, the East Lansing Rotary Vocational Service Award in 2001, the Friend of Education Award from the Delta Kappa Gamma Sorority in 2001, and the 2002 Leo Farhat Outstanding Lawyer of the Year Award from the Ingham County Bar Association. In 2010, Wonch was awarded the Crystal Apple Award for Excellence in Education by the Michigan State University College of Law.

Wonch, who in her off hours, enjoys spending time with her family, travel, gardening, power yoga, and reading, also likes the collegiality of the Cooley staff and faculty.

"I like that President LeDuc is a visionary and sees possibilities in people that they don't often see themselves. I like the way he sets goals and then encourages us to achieve them without micromanaging that," she says. "I really appreciate the support for community service that Cooley generates among its administration, faculty and staff. Cooley encourages everyone involved there - whether professors, staff or students, to be better people and to make this a better world. I like the idea of opening up the legal profession to everyone, not just a chosen few."

Published: Mon, Apr 4, 2011


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