How you can tell when a mediation is not a mediation
To get a better understanding of what mediation IS, it is important to know what mediation is NOT! The November, 2011 meeting which took place in Port of Spain, Trinidad, between Mrs. Sita Gajadharsingh-Nanga–the Principal of the Tunapuna Hindu Primary School, Mr. Satnarayan Maharaj–General Secretary of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, and Dr. Tim Gopeesingh–the Minister of Education in the Government of Trinidad & Tobago, was styled as a “mediation” by journalists but what took place lacked certain elements crucial to a definition of mediation.
It appears that a conflict had been triggered some two years ago between the Principal (SGN) and the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS)–the Hindu organization which owns and is responsible for certain aspects of administration of the school. This conflict then escalated to the point where in June, 2011, SGN wrote to the Teaching Service Commission, the body responsible for the assignment, transfer, promotion, discipline and termination of teachers in Trinidad & Tobago. In this letter she sought a transfer out of the school on the basis of certain allegations which she made against Mr. Maharaj (SM). No transfer was forthcoming at the start of the new school year in September, 2011 and eventually, on October 24, 2011, SGN and two school supervisors were blocked from entering the school. SM himself then made allegations against SGN and the conflagration seemed to be on the verge of becoming uncontrollable when the National Parent Teacher Association called for mediation to take place in order to arrive at a resolution to this heated issue.
It is against this background that a meeting was organized to take place at the Ministry’s premises in Port of Spain. This meeting was referred to as a “mediation” in many press articles and by many journalists who were reporting on the story. I was quite horrified by this since it was clear in my mind that whatever this meeting was, it was definitely not a mediation.
So when is a mediation not a mediation? A “mediation” is not a mediation when all the parties who may have an interest in the resolution of the conflict are not present at the mediation table. It was reported that the parties present at the “mediation” were Dr. Gopeesingh (the Minister), the President of the teachers’ union and other union officials, SGN and her attorney, SM and his attorney, and various other ministry officials. Now SM had asserted in an August, 2011 letter to the Teaching Service Commission (the Commission) that the parents of children attending the school had expressed concern about the conduct of SGN and that he feared a confrontation in the new academic year–presumably between the parents and SM. However, the Parent/Teacher Association (PTA) at the school in question was not at the mediation table. It was no wonder then, that after it was announced by the Minister that the “mediation” had resulted in a “settlement agreement” of all the issues, the PTA held a press conference indicating its continued objection to SGN remaining as Principal of the school. Another party not at the mediation table was the Commission. Letters of complaint had been lodged with this body from both SGN and SM. Given its wide powers, which included the power to transfer a teacher out of a school, it was surprising, to say the least, that no representative of this Commission was at the mediation table. The situation became perplexing when it was revealed that one of the terms of the “settlement agreement” was that the teacher would be transferred out of the school. How this was to be accomplished without the Commission being a party to that “settlement agreement” seemed not to have occurred to anyone.
A mediation is not a mediation when the mediator is not neutral or is not perceived to be neutral. There were certain questions about this conflict which, to my mind, demanded answers. Why had nothing been done over the past two years when the problems were escalating? What role had the Ministry played in the conflict over those two years/ What role would the Ministry assume and what attitude it would have to adopt toward the two main parties if there was no end to the conflict (since the Ministry has overarching responsibility for all schools in Trinidad & Tobago)? Without giving any answers to these questions, the Minister decided to assume the role of mediator in this dispute. How could he be neutral when his Ministry may very well have contributed to the impasse? How could he be neutral when the Ministry was itself conducting investigations into the conflict and would have to take a stand against one or other of the parties when the investigation was concluded? Further, from the Minister’s conduct and associations in a past incarnation under a differently constituted government, many citizens had formed the impression, rightly or wrongly, that he was a great friend of SM’s. Bearing in mind the power of perception, it seems to me that it would have been wise for the Minister to chose someone else to chair/facilitate/mediate that meeting. It did not help the situation when, a few weeks after he had announced the “settlement agreement” arising out of the “mediation”, the Minister publicly registered his dissatisfaction with the results of the Commission’s investigation which included a finding that there was no support for the allegations which had been leveled against SGN by SM. Many took the Minister’s outbursts as confirmation that he had never been neutral in the conflict but had always had a preference for the views of one side.
A mediation is not a mediation when all the interests of the parties are not floated and dealt with during the mediation session. One of the terms of the “settlement agreement” was that SGN was to return to the school the day after the meeting. She did not. Nor did she return the day after that or the day after that. She eventually indicated that her unwillingness to return to the school was out of concern for her personal safety given her previous experiences (being prevented from entering the school by the Board and having pupils and parents hold a placard-carrying demonstration outside the school against her continued tenure). Either the issue of her safety was not dealt with adequately or it was not dealt with at all during the meeting. Leaving interests unresolved, as was done in this case, does not auger well for the durability of any agreement arrived at during mediation.
A mediation is not a mediation when the mediation agreement is unclear, is open-ended and does not provide a mechanism for dealing with future conflicts which may arise between the parties about the implementation of the agreement. Mediation seeks to achieve final resolution or to devise some mechanism whereby final resolution can be achieved. Weeks after the “settlement agreement” had been signed, the conflict remained unresolved with no clear way forward. SM resumed making veiled allegations about SGN; SGN attended school for only the last few days before the end of the school term on December 16, 2011 (how effectively she could have discharged her functions as principal in those few days is anyone’s guess!); the PTA began fighting its case against her in the press and seemed to have arrogated unto itself the role of “supervisor of the Principal”; the Commission, having “cleared” SGN, took broad aim at other less well-known players such as the school supervisors who had been assigned to the school in the past months as well as another teacher at the school thus ensuring that the conflict would get worse before it got better; the Minister fell silent.
Despite then having been labeled as a “mediation”, this meeting that took place in November, 2011 was just that, a meeting. It ought not to have been labeled as a mediation due to the absence of certain key elements which make mediation, mediation. It is unfortunate that the term “mediation” was used to describe it since the high profile given to the conflict guaranteed that national attention was engaged on its outcome and many persons may have been left with the impression that that meeting typified what mediation is about. It is up to us, mediators and persons interested in mediation alike, to ensure that we seize every opportunity, as this field grows and becomes more established in the Caricom region, to educate others both about what this process is and more importantly, what it is not.