Reading, `Riting, And Robert's Rules Of Order

Ever since her nomination for Attorney General collapsed last year, Zo Baird has kept a low profile. But now, in her first interview since she withdrew her nomination, the senior vice-president and general counsel of Aetna Life & Casualty Co. is letting the world know that there is life after being picked apart by Washington. And for Baird, it's on the school playground.

Baird is spearheading an innovative program aimed at teaching children how to work through disputes nonviolently. The hope: that they will use mediation skills to resolve conflicts when they grow up, resulting in less crime, fewer lawsuits, fewer insurance claims, and ultimately a drop in Aetna's legal bills. "They're getting a means to control their lives," explains the 41-year-old Baird.

STILL IN TOUCH. In the past year, Aetna has sent 8,000 mediation kits to teachers at middle schools nationwide. In as little as 15 minutes per day, combative students are taught to take responsibility for their own actions, watch their body language, and ask nonjudgmental, open-ended questions. Other students, who serve as arbitrators, are taught not to criticize, prejudge, or take sides. "It's very useful information as an introduction to conflict resolution," says Annette Townley, executive director of the National Association for Mediation in Education.

For Baird, the school program is just one of several causes she has taken up since her nomination failed in February, 1993. Although Baird won't comment on the incident or on her dealings with the President, she has kept strong ties with the White House--through the office she would have occupied if it had not been disclosed that she failed to pay Social Security taxes for her child's nanny.

Baird has been working closely with Attorney General Janet Reno since last summer on a yet-to-be-announced national project aimed at persuading corporate attorneys to volunteer to work with children in their spare time. The project, Lawyers for Children, will also teach kids mediation using the Aetna model. In addition, Baird sits on a panel that advises Clinton on foreign-relations matters--a post she snagged last September, partly because of her role in helping to handle the hostage crisis with Iran during the Carter Administration.

But Baird's main preoccupation these days is school mediation, which is already showing promise. At Sandy Springs Middle School in Atlanta, students are sent to the principal's office 40% less often than just one year ago. At South Scranton (Pa.) Intermediate School, teachers report that fighting has decreased while classroom behavior has improved. And at Rochambeau Middle School in Southbury, Conn., a potential tussle between two students ended with an agreement by the two not to talk to each other, boasts Ryan Baran, an eighth grader who helped strike the deal. "It teaches us how to solve our own problems," says Julie Fishman, another Rochambeau eighth grader.

Certainly, mediation in schools isn't new. But corporate participation--and recognition of its benefits to business--is. Aetna, the only company thus far backing the approach, has committed some $50,000 to it and has also donated time and supplies. For its work, Aetna was given the Practical Achievement Award in January by the Center for Public Resources, a New York organization working to cut legal costs.

Aetna's interest in the field began in 1984, when its legal department first developed the mediation system for city residents, using Aetna employees to referee criminal or civil disputes out of court. Baird estimates that Aetna's efforts will eventually reduce Hartford's court caseload by 10%. Such success led the insurer to offer its program five years ago to teenagers at Weaver High School in Hartford.

MORE REFORM. The school program is part of Aetna's push to reform the legal system. Through Baird, the company has contained legal costs by paying lawyers for their work, not for the time they spend doing it. Other billing methods tested include negotiating discounted fees with firms in exchange for a set number of cases. All told, Aetna says it has cut its legal bill by $8 million.

For the moment, however, Baird is most dedicated to the mediation project and to her 4-year-old son, Julian, who recently wanted to punch another boy who had punched him first. Baird asked him: "Did he hit you because he wanted your attention, or did you do something to him?" By emphasizing the source of conflict rather its outcome, Baird hopes that Julian, like other kids learning mediation, will get the message.

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