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Safe at School

Author: Nancy Sands Johnson
January, 2013 Issue

Sebastopol-based nonprofit shows students how to create a culture of kindness at school.

The topic of school-related bullying and violence hits a raw nerve with kids and adults alike. Maybe your grandfather ran from thugs who wanted his lunch money. Or your cousin got expelled for threatening a classmate. Perhaps in sixth grade, you watched and said nothing as your friends humiliated the new kid.
The mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 became part of our nation’s collective bullying story. It shattered the assumption that kids could be safe at school and spurred lawmakers to pass Title IV, The Safe and Drug-Free Schools Act, which gave schools financial resources to address concerns about school shootings. Since then, schools have spent $10 billion on anti-bullying and violence prevention campaigns. Yet many of today’s students still encounter intimidation, put downs, threats and physical assaults on campus. And, unlike previous generations, they must contend with new forms of cruelty and intolerance, delivered through electronic aggression—text messages, social media and email.
“Many principals say the school environment is more challenging now than it was before Columbine,” says Rick Phillips, executive director of Community Matters in Sebastopol. “They tell me it’s meaner, it’s younger and, because of cyberbullying, it’s more anonymous.”
Community Matters is a beacon of hope in this sea of despair. Through a wide range of programs and services, the organization helps schools create an internal climate where all kids can feel welcomed, included and safe. Community Matters embraces an “inside-out” approach that’s focused on the interpersonal dynamics among kids, rather than “outside-in” measures focused primarily on security and punishment.
The inside-out approach creates opportunities to build trust and mutual respect across different groups in the school community; teaches problem solving and decision-making skills that actually work in the real world; implements restorative practices, where kids have a chance to right their wrongs and learn from mistakes; and taps the power of influential kids to shift the school culture away from cruelty and violence and toward civility and kindness.
“History has shown us that, if you want to stem the tide of violence and bullying, you have to change the social norms of what’s cool and uncool in youth culture,” explains Phillips. “Schools can check the guns at the door, but they can’t check the kids. And kids bring in weapons that get past security cameras and campus police—the weapons of prejudice, neighborhood grudges and family values.”

Ambassadors of kindness

Kathy Coker knows well what these invisible weapons look and sound like. In 2003, after four years as assistant principal at Santa Rosa Middle School, Coker accepted the position as principal there. One of her first goals was to create a friendlier campus than the one she saw in front of her.
“At the time, we had more defined groups, and some of them intimidated each other,” recalls Coker. “There was name calling, harassment; the staff spent a lot of time investigating these problems and trying to intervene, but the bullying was hard to catch.”
For help, Coker turned to Community Matters’ Safe School Ambassadors (SSA) program. SSA works on the deceptively simple premise that kids have the power to deflect, defuse and derail bullying and violence at school. But it needs to start with the clique leaders—and those kids need training and support from trusted adults to be successful at it. Community Matters calls this “waking up the courage of influential bystanders.”
“Kids cluster at school in social circles where they feel most comfortable,” explains Phillips. “And each of these cliques has an alpha male or alpha female with the social status to influence the group toward certain behaviors. So we thought, ‘What if we could appeal to the self-interest of these clique leaders and train them how to intervene safely just with the kids they hang out with? Would that make a difference?’ The evidence shows that it does.”
Coker deployed SSA in fall 2003 and, pleased with its success, has implemented it annually since then. At her school, which serves about 650 seventh and eighth graders, student ambassadors are selected each spring from the incoming eighth grade class. In keeping with the Community Matters’ model, the selection process emphasizes leadership potential and influence with peers, not necessarily grades.
“We carefully choose kids who show signs of leadership and who represent the different student groups and cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds on our campus,” says Coker. “These kids were probably concerned about issues before, but did not have the skills to intervene effectively.”
The 48 ambassadors, along with about six school staff members, are assigned to eight family groups that attend a two-day education and skills training session at the beginning of the year. Coker characterizes this training as a “phenomenal, retreat-like experience,” where trust is built among kids who normally wouldn’t hang out with each other or have classes together.
“A lot of personal challenges and conflicts happen at the middle school age—parents get divorced, grandparents die, bodies change,” explains Coker. “The training opens our ambassadors’ eyes and hearts to the hardships their classmates might be facing. And that compassion comes out in the way ambassadors interact with kids for the rest of the year.”
According to Coker, who credits teacher and SSA program adviser Marilyn Wheatley as “the driving force behind the program on our campus,” there’s a ripple effect once ambassadors put their new skills into action.
“Bystanders see the way ambassadors handle situations and start to think, ‘Maybe it is OK to help someone who drops his books instead of laughing at him,’ or ‘Maybe it’s not cool to make fun of somebody else to make myself feel better,’” says Coker. “Even parents notice a change at home, in the way their kids talk to siblings. It’s intentional acts of kindness all day long.”

Where economics meets morality

It should be enough to make the case for kinder, safer schools on moral grounds alone. But in this era of budget shortfalls and funding requirements, “the right thing to do” often gets pushed aside by “what we can afford to do.”
Phillips understands this, in part because he was a schoolteacher and administrator for many years before establishing Community Matters. And so it’s not surprising that when he makes his case for SSA, he talks evidence and numbers.
Take zero tolerance policies, which establish strict and mandatory punishments for bad behavior. School officials pass these policies to show they take bullying and violence prevention seriously. But research shows that, rather than increase school safety, the zero tolerance approach often leads to more detentions, suspensions and expulsions. And that hurts financially: Schools don’t receive full federal per diem payments when kids stay home, whether it’s because they’re afraid to go to school or because they’ve been suspended.
Other efforts also show poor return on investment because they don’t get at the root of the problem: the relationships among kids. For example, when schools install surveillance cameras or hire security guards, kids move their interactions to avoid detection—or engage in cyberbullying. One-off solutions like anti-bullying assemblies encourage kids to open up, but often aren’t accompanied by the systemic change programs needed for real progress.
Phillips argues SSA, which costs about $100 per participant for the two-day training, offers a better value proposition. The impact is felt not only for the schools themselves but also for the businesses that serve them. A California insurance pool, for example, noticed fewer incidents that can lead to claims at schools with active SSA programs.
“We’ve implemented SSA in 1,000 schools over a period of 12 years. So we know that if you get the right kids trained, you’ll achieve positive and measurable changes in the climate over time,” he says. “Principals see it in the disciplinary data and in the surveys conducted before and after the program is implemented. They also feel it in the mood on campus.”

Solutions, not rules

The success of SSA at Healdsburg Junior High School illustrates this point. In the first two years of the program’s implementation, detentions at the school dropped by more than 50 percent and suspensions decreased from 445 to 68.
Deborah Hall, principal at Healdsburg Junior High, brought SSA to the school in 2006, her first year there. Back then, the school was in transition—sixth grade was being added, and both Hall and her assistant principal were new to the school. Hall wanted to establish a school culture focused less on reprimanding students and more on positive behavior, and she recognized that SSA would complement her other efforts to achieve that goal.
“I was blown away by the positive impact it had on our discipline within the first two years, and it was inspiring to watch the students step up,” says Hall. “They started to address issues in the yard on their own. And they also began to tell us what was going on, so we could head off trouble and help students find better ways to handle themselves.”
Seven years after implementing SSA for the first time, Hall is now the program’s coordinator, in addition to her more than full-time job as school principal. That’s both a stark reminder of the choices schools must make in this era of budget cuts and staff reductions and a testament to the dedication of educators willing to do what it takes to help kids feel safe and included at school.
“The Healdsburg community has been awesome in helping to fund the two-day training, but we don’t have the money to pay the family group leaders for their time or to fund a program coordinator,” explains Hall. “We make it work, though, because we’ve seen discipline issues go up when family groups don’t have time to practice their skills or process what’s going on.”
During these difficult times, Hall appreciates the support she receives from Community Matters.
“Community Matters’ staff is there for us every time we need them,” says Hall. “Last year, they let us preview their new anti-bullying assembly at a reduced cost. Other times, they’ve found us funding. They’re amazing.”

Reinforcing school (and family) values

“Amazing” is also the way Susan Roffmann, principal at St. Vincent de Paul Elementary School in Petaluma, describes Community Matters’ staff and the SSA program, particularly the two-day training.
“This is one of the most well-developed and well-implemented programs I’ve experienced,” says Roffmann. “The training was phenomenal. I’m still talking about how well the trainer understood the program and connected with our kids.”
The message of kindness and civility espoused by Community Matters is not a new concept for students and staff at St. Vincent. The school emphasizes respect for others as part of its general teachings of the Catholic faith. Despite this respect-oriented culture, however, staff continued to see kids excluded by others at recess and hear about student-to-student put-downs and other mean behavior.
So when a donor offered to fund the SSA program at St. Vincent, Roffmann did her research and accepted the gift.
“Community Matters puts the solution in the kids’ hands, which impressed me,” explains Roffmann. “It gives kids tools to stop the disrespect.”
St. Vincent’s first group of 29 ambassadors, drawn from the school’s fourth through eighth grades, attended its training with seven adult family group leaders in August 2012. According to Roffmann, everyone came away from the training feeling empowered and excited about the program. That excitement hasn’t diminished, in part because family groups meet on a weekly basis to keep conflict resolution skills fresh.
“As they put what they learned into practice, our students began to realize it wasn’t going to be as easy as they thought at first,” says Roffmann. “The family group meetings give them a chance to run through the scenarios they’ve encountered during the week and sort out what worked and what didn’t. They’re all learning from each other’s experiences.”
And when the adults in the program need advice, they turn to the experts at Community Matters.
“It’s not, ‘here’s our program, goodbye,’” says DeAnn Sarlatte, kindergarten teacher and SSA coordinator at St. Vincent. “Community Matters’ staff check in with us constantly, asking what they can do to help. And when we have a question, they respond immediately.”
To be sure, St. Vincent’s longtime emphasis on respect has helped the roll-out of the SSA program. Parents of all St. Vincent students were invited to attend a presentation by Phillips in October 2012, and their response was overwhelmingly positive. Down the line, students will attend age-appropriate assemblies presented by Community Matters, where they’ll be introduced to the ambassador concept. Roffmann hopes that all her students will be trained as ambassadors at some point during their years at the school.
“It takes about three years for the program’s approach to permeate on campus,” says Roffmann. “It’s not reality to think you can do it all in a month.
“We want to do this correctly, so we’re following Community Matters’ guidelines,” she continues. “We’re pleased with our progress so far, and we’re planning to make sure the program continues to get funded.”

A long-term investment

Community Matters offers a compelling solution and outstanding customer service. It even helps schools find the money to pay for SSA through grants and donations. Yet Phillips and his team still encounter resistance when trying to place SSA in more schools.
“Many educators are burned out, overworked and challenged by budget cuts. So getting them to take on a new project, even one that’s worthwhile, is a challenge,” says Phillips. Plus, in the 13 years since Columbine, the focus in education has shifted from worrying about guns at school to worrying about test scores. “Schools are overwhelmed by the requirements of academic achievement. As a result, they’ve relegated social and emotional learning to second-class status. They’ve forgotten that you can’t learn if you’re afraid.”
At Santa Rosa Middle School, Coker and her SSA team work hard to achieve academic goals while maintaining an emotionally healthy culture. For example, they carefully review student schedules so they can plan family meetings during elective courses and not core subjects. They also regularly share information with other staff members and with parents to ensure long-term commitment, both emotional and financial, for the program.
“We constantly report SSA findings at faculty meetings and talk about the program with parents so everyone knows how it's making a difference on campus,” says Coker. “We invest in program each year, and each year it gets better.”

Reach one, teach one

Ongoing communication with stakeholders on and off the school grounds is vital to Community Matters’ ongoing success. Phillips and his supporters speak frequently at a wide range of venues—from local service club meetings and international education conferences to interviews on the "Today" show and CNN—and, increasingly, they are finding an audience eager for answers.
“There are more challenges today, but there's also less denial,” says Phillips. “Ten years ago, people would say, ‘So what, I got bullied as a kid and I made it through.’ Now society is more aware and engaged.”
To date, more than 60,000 school kids in 32 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and Canada have been exposed to the SSA program. Among them: Donny Giovanni, who was a Safe School Ambassador while at Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa.
“I wanted to help my school and I thought it would look good on my college applications,” he admits. After completing the training, however, he became a change agent among his peers. “If I witnessed a teammate being teased, I would step in. If I saw a student being excluded, I would reach out. If I saw tempers rising, I would try to defuse the situation.”
Seven years later, Giovannini, who later graduated from Stanford and now works in the financial sector, still values the leadership skills he acquired through the program.
“I consider SSA a character-building initiative with safer schools as a byproduct,” he says. “I’m proud to call myself a Safe School Ambassador.”
Success stories like Giovannini’s inspire Community Matters to, in Phillips’ words, “reach one and teach one,” in schools, in business and in society at large.
“We’re driven by our mission,” he says. “Kids are ready to step up. It’s our job, as adults, to give them the tools and support to be the leaders we wish them to become.”

10 Ways You Can Help Stop Bullying


1. Learn about the issue.

Media attention on bullying and cyberbullying is increasing rapidly. The more informed and better educated you are, the more effective you can be in impacting the problem. You can find links to articles on bullying prevention on the Community Matters website ( or do a Google search of terms like “bullying,” “cyberbullying” and so forth.

2. Walk the talk.

Children learn many social cues from adults, parents/caregivers and their peers. By modeling empathy, tolerance and respect in your actions and communication, you impart these values and influence the attitudes and behaviors of your children.

3. Talk with your children.

Often, if children are involved in bullying as either targets or aggressors, they’re reluctant to talk about it. Ask your children about their social experience at school, especially if they seem withdrawn or are exhibiting unusual changes in their mood or behavior.

4. Monitor your child online.

Cyberbullying is the fastest growing type of peer-on-peer mistreatment today. It’s important for parents to be able to monitor their children’s use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, both at home and on mobile devices.

5. Understand your school’s policies.

Rules, procedures and policies regarding bullying vary greatly from district to district. Many states have enacted anti-bullying legislation, but implementation at the school site may be lacking. Speak with school officials and your school board about what policies they have in place and what programs they’ve implemented to address bullying and cyberbullying.

6. Identify and build alliances in your community.

Local service clubs, PTAs, government agencies and businesses can be a source of support and funding for bullying and cyberbullying prevention programs like Safe School Ambassadors (SSA). Working with the various stakeholders in your community is an effective way to build a coalition and create safer school climates.

7. Advocate for safer schools.

Write a letter to the editor of your local paper, attend or join your local PTA or school board, or start a community group dedicated to addressing bullying and cyberbullying at your local schools.

8. Join the Community Matters “Waking Up Courage” community online.

Join on Facebook and follow on Twitter. Every week Community Matters shares tools, inspiration and the latest news on waking up courage and the anti-bullying movement.

9. Sponsor a workshop.

Community Matters offers parent workshops that provide parents and guardians with an understanding of what bullying is today, the social, emotional and financial costs to students, parents and schools, and communication tips to effectively support children and teens.

10. Sponsor Safe School Ambassadors (SSA) at a school.

Many schools have the desire to provide proven effective school climate improvement programs like Safe School Ambassadors, but lack the funding to implement them. By sponsoring SSA at your local school or alma mater, you can create positive change by reducing bullying and cyberbullying, creating a climate of safety, inclusiveness and respect. Ask for information on how you can make a difference at the school of your choice.



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