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, 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, 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 as them.

“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 to countries 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. “The food was fabulous, the weather was relentlessly hot, the ancient history, buildings, culture, and artifacts were really interesting, and 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.

“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 Ph.D. in education.”

She began her legal career as an intern for the Michigan Department of Education, Special Education Services Area. Later she clerked for Tesseris & Crown, and was an associate with Church, Wyble, Kritselis, Anderson & Robinson, P.C., 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. She was certified as a specialist in civil litigation by the National Board of Trial Advocacy from 1992 through 2007.

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 as a member of the State Bar of Michigan Subcommittees on Professional and Judicial Ethics, for seven years, two years as chair.

She is also a former member of the Ingham County Friend of the Court Advisory Committee, and the State Court Administrator’s Office Court Improvement Program. She has been a tort mediation panelist in Ingham and Eaton counties for 25 years and is an approved domestic relations mediator for Ingham County.

She is president of Advent House Ministries, serving the homeless community, and chair of the Lansing Educational Advancement Foundation, and presided over the Lansing School District Citizen Bond Forum. 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, and the 1998 Resolution Tribute by the Ingham County Bar Association.

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.

“I like it when they don’t just take what they’re told and memorize it. They really think about it and try to digest it sufficiently to pose alternatives and arguments.  They keep things interesting. I like being part of mentoring young people to develop their skills and intellect.”

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,” she says. “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.”


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