Cultivating student ambassadors for school safety

In the 10 years since the school shootings in Columbine, Colo., more than $10 billion has been spent on school security nationwide. Much less funding has been directed to address the increasing frequency of bullying and cyberbullying in our schools. Many schools address bullying and cyberbullying through suspension and expulsion. While effective at the moment, this approach presents a missed opportunity for everyone — the victim, the school, and the suspended or expelled student.

San Diego schools have been working to address bullying in several ways, including a program that has begun at more than 30 schools since last spring. Community Matters’ Safe School Ambassadors program — offered through the San Diego County Schools Risk Management Joint Powers Authority with generous support from Munich Re America — uses a peer-to-peer approach to get students involved in school safety from the beginning and help bring bullying to an end.

Schools have traditionally addressed bullying and violence after the incident, when students have been caught violating the rules and the damage has been done. The School Ambassador program, on the other hand, seeks to stop bullying and cyberbullying incidents before they happen or before the situation has escalated. The approach is simple: Have fellow students, those closest to the action, defuse the situation instead of being silent bystanders who do not intervene.

While the idea is simple, the implementation of this approach is complex. Teachers and administrators at participating schools identify 40 to 45 students who have “social influence” with their fellow students. These are the clique leaders who others students look up to and, in some cases, may have reputations for being bullies or getting in trouble.

These students, who need their parents’ or guardians’ consent to participate, are invited to become ambassadors. Then the students attend two days of training, teaming with adults and working collaboratively to share their stories, learning to empathize and find their courage. Student ambassadors learn and practice skills for safely and effectively intervening in incidents of bullying, cyberbullying and other forms of mistreatment. The focus is on safe actions the ambassadors can take to defuse a bullying situation before it gets started.

Support for the student ambassadors is ongoing and includes adults meeting with their ambassador teams every two weeks to share emotions and debrief on what is going well or not going well. These meetings provide students an opportunity to learn and practice techniques; it also allows school leaders to capture information about how often and in what types of situations they intervened.

In the year or so since the ambassador program has been implemented in local schools, faculty and staff have seen the benefits of the program in an improved social-emotional climate within the student body.

A total of 450 students and 98 adults were trained in the first 13 schools that implemented the program in spring 2013. Based on a three-day snapshot sampling of five of the participating schools, the student ambassadors reported 281 interventions, meaning they interrupted, de-escalated, prevented or stopped a peer-on-peer mistreatment. Projected over the course of an entire 180-day school year, these 450 ambassadors would be on track to take courageous action over 50,000 times.

This also translates to a positive ripple effect in the schools. When other students observe the positive interventions of the ambassadors, they often become motivated to take action and speak up themselves. Research shows that each ambassador can influence as many as 20 peers with their actions. This shift in behavior over time results in a tipping point that can change the schools’ social norms from “it’s cool to be cruel” to “it’s right to speak up.” Ultimately, bystanders turn into upstanders.

So what is the bottom line? Based on a two-year independent study, schools that participated in the student ambassador program full commitment experienced a 33 percent decrease in suspensions. This means teachers can focus on teaching and students focus on learning.

There are also financial benefits, because schools receive funding only when students are in class. One school district that implemented a number of approaches to school climate change, including the school ambassador program, saw a 2 percent increase in attendance, which translated into a $950,000 revenue increase.

We know that bullying causes real pain to students and their families, and causes a negative ripple effect on the entire school community. That is why San Diego County schools are dedicated to exploring all avenues to create a safer environment for the students we serve. We are thankful for the support of Community Matters and Munich Re America in this public-private partnership to stop bullying and empower students.

Crosier is executive director of the San Diego and Imperial County Schools Joint Powers Authority. Phillips is executive director of Community Matters.

View all comments
User Response
1 UserComments
Kira Fox 8:12am April 14, 2014

When will the next training take place?