Happy 13th Anniversary!: Safe School Ambassadors First Ever Program Launch

January 6 2014

Author

  • Rick Lewis, School Climate Specialist in the School District of Palm Beach County, Florida
    Rick Lewis
    School Climate Specialist in the School District of Palm Beach County, Florida

My name is Rick Lewis, and I work as the School Climate Specialist in the School District of Palm Beach County, Florida. I am writing this blog on the 13th anniversary of the first ever Safe School Ambassadors program ever launched. On December 13 and 14, 2000, three of our local high schools attended a two-day training conducted by Rick Phillips and Chris Pack for a brand new program they called Safe School Ambassadors (SSA). 

Some history: In August 2000, the chief of our Safe Schools Department, Alison Adler, attended a breakout session at a national school counseling conference in San Diego. She heard Rick Phillips speak eloquently about his belief in the power of young people to positively influence their peers attitudes and behavior and to shift the social norms in their schools.

This issue was fresh on the minds and hearts of all us in Palm Beach County, as we had recently suffered the death of a beloved colleague, teacher Barry Grunow, at the hands of a distressed and disgruntled 7th Grader named Nathaniel Brazill. Nathaniel had left Lake Worth Middle School shortly before the end of the last day of school, May 28, 2000. He had been sent home early for tossing water balloons…not the world’s most dangerous activity, but nonetheless one that was earning all the “throwers an early start to their vacations.” The trouble was, Nathaniel felt angry and thwarted by being sent home and suspended. As he left the campus, he told two of his classmates that he was going “to come back and mess up the school….just watch". After riding home two miles to retrieve a cheap pistol he had stolen from a family friend, Nathaniel rode all the way back to school, and went to Barry’s class shortly before dismissal, demanding to see his friends. 

When Barry directed him to return to class, not even knowing Nathaniel was suspended, Nathaniel raised the gun. Barry’s last words were, “Nathaniel, don’t point that thing”. We will never know if Barry even suspected the gun was real. The gun went off, and Barry Grunow died from a shot to his temple in the doorway of his classroom.

At a gathering of our Silence Hurts campaign a year after the tragedy, my eyes welled with tears as the two girls who heard Nathaniel’s threat sobbed, recounting their memories of that day. They both said they would give anything to replay that last hour. But neither of them had the training and communication skills on their social skill tool belt at the time. Nor did they have the institutional support of caring adult advisors or the camaraderie of fellow students, equipped to notice, think, act, and follow-through. 

In the 13 years since Alison embraced Rick’s message of waking up the courage of young people, and invited him to start the SSA program in three area high schools, Community Matters has grown from a three-person team to one involving 14 home staff and 15 national trainers. The program itself has received endless hours of microscopic examination, resulting in improvements that have customized it for use in middle and elementary schools, as well as high schools. It has benefited from the feedback of every trainer, Program Advisor and Family Group Facilitator and student that Community Matters has worked with. In addition, Safe School Ambassadors has recently been designated as an evidence-based program by SAMHSA and NREPP.

In our District, over 40 schools have initiated SSA on their campuses, and more schools are getting involved every year. We know the program delivers significant improvements in school climate and reduces incidents often leading to suspensions. 

What you would not know is that Pam Grunow, Barry’s widow, quietly, and without fanfare, volunteers as a coach at many of our SSA trainings.  And that Barry and Pam’s daughter has been a member of SSA for three years. And that one of the two girls who heard Nathaniel’s threat against the school decided to become a middle school teacher. And that she also became the SSA Program Advisor at her school.

13 years of successfully helping more than 1400 schools be safer places where young people are given the opportunity and support to be peacemakers and “upstanders”, that’s part of the legacy of Community Matters. I applaud Rick and the entire team for their unwavering commitment to help schools be places where all students feel safe, welcome and included.

I choose to believe that somewhere, Barry Grunow is smiling and sending every one of us in the Safe School Ambassadors community an ethereal high-five. Let’s keep it going and growing for at least another 13 years!



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