Tuesday, January 16, 2001

Mason High trains peer counselors

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        If 16-year-old Allison Sammons needed to talk to someone about peer pressure, she said would choose a friend over a counselor.

        But she'd have to trust that person, the Mason High School sophomore said.

        Mason's guidance office this school year piloted a peer helpers program so students who need to discuss problems, fears or quarrels will have the option of talking to trained peers before going to professional counselors.

        Unlike peer mediation programs in many Tristate schools, Mason's peer helpers won't necessarily try to resolve in-school conflicts.

        The 14 trained helpers often will just listen to fellow students and be a safety net for kids who won't consult an adult.

        “There's still a stigma of what the consequences are if they talk to a school counselor,” said Mason counselor Amanda Leszczuk. “And sometimes they just need to talk.”

        Allison doesn't think she'd tell personal things to someone she doesn't know, but the program could be helpful for some kids.

        “It's a good idea,” she said. “If people don't have someone to turn to, it's another outlet.”

        The helpers, whose pictures will be posted on a school bulletin board, received three hours of training in November and several more hours last Monday. They're learning how to listen to fellow students' problems but also know their limits as “counselors.”

Learning to listen
               Students also rehearsed how to deal with problems, such as a conflict with a teacher who seemed to be picking on a student. One role-playing exercise dealt with a girl heartbroken over a break-up with her boyfriend. Another situation focused on a student who was partying too much but felt he didn't have a problem.

        “You guys are out there,” said guidance counselor Shelley Marshall. “You'll be our eyes and ears, but we don't expect you to be experts either.”

        If ever a helper feels uncomfortable with a peer's problem, that student should talk to a counselor, Ms. Marshall said. The students, though, should never dis cuss a peer's problem with their friends, she said, even in the abstract.

        Dr. Tom Schweinberg, a clinical psychologist of the Westwood Psychological Group in Cheviot,said the peer helpers could be a good addition to a school guidance program.

        “The most obvious thing is it would make it easier for kids to seek out help in a less threatening way,” Dr. Schweinberg said. “It might also serve as a nice gateway if they do need more professional help.”

Issues that loom large
               Teens might be more willing to talk to their peers rather than counselors about romantic relationships, drugs and alcohol, pressure to be sexually active, fears about where their lives are headed or identity issues, he said.

        However, anything involving possible harm, such as drug or alcohol use or thoughts of suicide, should be referred to a professional, Dr. Schweinberg said.

        Like most peer mediation pro grams the Mason helper program is voluntary. Students can seek out the helpers.

        Mason guidance counselors don't yet know whether students will take advantage of the helpers, but peer mediation programs have proved popular in some schools.

        At Dry Ridge Elementary in Grant County, Kentucky, more than 100 students used the program last year, said counselor Beth Palm.

        “The kids feel good about being able to work things out by themselves,” she said.

        And Mason's helpers are optimistic they'll prove useful because they can relate.

        “We're going through the same problems they're going through because we're the same age,” said sophomore Sally Louis, 15.

        “I'd never come to a guidance counselor, I'd come to a friend,” said sophomore Beth Conn, 16, whose guidance counselor is also her best friend's dad. “I know students would listen to us.”


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