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 schoolchildren learn ways to achieve productive, peaceful conflict resolution.

The Flint native started in 1994 when her older son was a fourth grade student. When the school had a “switch day,” inviting parents to teach kids things outside the curriculum like 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 ... lawyers are supposed to be the alternative, in our society, to shooting it out in the street.

“I ... 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, which 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 for three months to study 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..., particularly Cambodia, and the environmental issues confronting all of Southeast Asia currently impact all of us...

“We can’t just turn our backs on people in other countries and only take care of ourselves. We don’t exist in a vacuum and we ought to be exporting peace instead of weapons and war. This experience gave me a new appreciation for Rotary and its quest to make the world a better place through programs bringing safe drinking water, vaccinations – particularly polio – education, and peace ... all over the world.” 

During her stay, Wonch lived in a dorm on the campus of the university known as the “Harvard of Southeast Asia.”

“It was phenomenal to be with young people and to learn from them,” she says. “...I found out I could be happy and get around quite well in a city of 14 million people.  So it was empowering in many ways.

“After visiting a refugee camp, the Killing Fields, Toul Seng Prison, remote fishing villages with no running water or electricity, and seeing children as young as two years old begging on the streets with no visible adult supervision, I can more fully appreciate what we have in this country and why we can’t just arrogantly assume that we have it because we ‘deserve’ it.”
Wonch earned her bachelor’s degree from Eastern Michigan University, and her law degree, cum laude, from Cooley.

She began her legal career as an intern for the Michigan Department of Education, Special Education Services Area. Later she joined a litigation law firm in Lansing.

“I took the first job I was offered because I was worried I would have trouble finding another one,” she says. “I never thought I would go into litigation. I was a shy person and just wanted to do research and write briefs and wills. It turned out that I liked the courtroom and the give and take of litigation.”

In 1982, Wonch and fellow attorneys Thomas Anderson and Thomas Hay began the law firm of Anderson, Hay, and Wonch, P.C., later Anderson & Wonch, P.C., specializing in litigation, in the areas of personal injury, Social Security, workers' compensation, domestic relations, real estate, and probate.

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

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 ICBA.

As a professor, Wonch enjoys her students’ passion and enthusiasm for the law and for being of service to community.

“I enjoy seeing the ‘light bulb’ go off when they figure out what it is to ‘think like a lawyer,’” she says. “I love the diversity of our student body – they come from all walks and all geographical areas, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds.