The High Value of Student Engagement in Creating Safer Schools: A Risk Management Perspective
In 2010 I was at a Joint Powers Authority (JPA – a largely self-insured pool of school districts) Conference in Lake Arrowhead, California, when I first saw the issue of student bullying through the eyes of Rick Phillips. Rick, the Founder and Executive Director of Community Matters, was a featured speaker that day, and as part of his presentation he told the story of how he was bullied as a child. Moving to America from Canada at a tender age, he was immediately labelled an outsider, causing him to feel even more insecure and vulnerable than one typically might feel as a young boy entering a new school in a new land.
As the story progressed, like many victims of bullying, Rick persevered and overcame the teasing, taunting and physical violence, eventually becoming a teacher, a site principal and even a district administrator. Through his own experiences and through counseling students along the way, he became painfully aware of the plight of bullying victims.
Rick’s experience led him to believe there’s a better way to combat student violence and bullying than what he was seeing around him. The existing approach necessarily consisted of first convincing adults that bullying really does exist and then suggesting ways they might recognize and stop it. Rick’s alternative approach was to harness the power of students to stem the violence by engaging the strength of student leaders, to exert their influence over their peers, encouraging them to do the right thing – to begin by stopping their own bullying behavior and intervening when they saw others doing it. Specifically, Rick’s idea was to enroll leaders from all the different student groups and cliques on campus, whether traditionally seen as model citizens or not. From this shift in thinking, the Safe School Ambassadors® Program was born.
One of our forward thinking principals had already brought the Safe School Ambassadors Program (SSA) to our district, having learned of it from a friend in another district. As our JPA promoted SSA to more schools, we determined that beside the social and cultural benefits of reducing acts of bullying, it was also likely to reduce the number of insurance claims. We were no longer talking solely about doing the right thing, we were talking about saving money! District representatives at the JPA are largely business people. Those who hadn’t already been swayed by Rick’s impassioned presentation were now on the edge of their seats. Shortly thereafter, our JPA approved funding to assist interested districts in bringing SSA to their schools.
Not long after my introduction to SSA, I was allowed to sit in on part of a training session at a junior high school (having promised to be as invisible as possible). The students and adult leaders adjourned to the blacktop, where they were asked to stand on a single line. They were asked questions, and a yes response required them to step forward, across the line, for all to see. The first questions were simple, and most, if not all, stepped forward. Example: “Do you like music?” A largely universal yes. “Do you like Rap music?” A few fell off. “Do you like country music?” Among teenagers, more fell off.
This pattern continued as the questions got significantly more serious. “Have you been bullied?” A large number said yes. “Have you been bullied at this school?” Some fell off. Surprisingly, one adult leader (staff member) stepped forward. And finally, “Have you ever bullied someone at this school?” This is where it got interesting! Two young men (skaters, I think) that could at best be described as on the fringe of the perceived behavior spectrum, looked at each other for courage, then stepped forward. At the same time, a petite young lady that looked as sweet as could be, also stepped forward. The lesson here: Don’t assume you’ll know where the behavior is coming from.
The courage it took for all three of them to step forward was profound. When we returned to the meeting room, it was as if the air had left the building. No one said a word, which if you have been around junior high students, you’ll know how unlikely that is. At that moment, I knew we were onto something! Once again, I saw the issue through Rick Phillips’ eyes.
I’m pleased to say that now, 6 years later, we have 28 schools participating in the SSA program: 19 elementary, 8 junior highs, and one high school. Our suspension and expulsion data have shown significant improvement. Students, staff, and parents regularly tell us how important the program is to them, and how well it is working.