Safe School Ambassadors 25 years after Columbine

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since the tragic mass shootings on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. I can vividly remember watching the horror on live television as students and staff were desperately climbing out of windows trying to get out of harm’s way any way they could.

It was a seminal moment in US history, one that was seared in our individual and collective consciousness.

Within weeks of the tragedy, I found myself deeply troubled and compelled to take action. That call to action drew upon my life experiences, both as a victim of bullying and as an educator committed to youth empowerment, believing that young people were an underutilized and untapped resource who were in the best position to make our school safer.

I never imagined that 25 years later, the Safe School Ambassadors Program (SSA), would not only survive, but thrive in schools everywhere. Such a simple and powerful idea; identify and enroll diverse student leaders, equip, and empower them with the motivation, tools, and support to be Upstanders. SSA mobilizes Upstanders willing and ready to say and do something when they witness or know of injustice, hatred, bullying and cyberbullying in their school community.

Think about it. How many students, many now adults, parents, and teachers who have been impacted and forever changed by the opportunity to be a part of the Safe School Ambassadors movement.

I share this with you to honor every Community Matters (CM) trainer, staff member and board member (past and present), and school officials who believed in us. Every Program Advisor, every Family Group Facilitator, every Administrator, every Ambassador, every funder, every donor, every parent, and many others, who stood with us in the development and implementation of SSA.

I can’t name everyone individually, but I want to say a special thanks to Chris Pack, who side-by side, contributed mightily to the success of CM and SSA. And to John Linney, master trainer and co-author of the Safe School Ambassadors book. I also want to express gratitude to Erica Vogel, CEO and the CM staff team who kept CM afloat during the pandemic.

Lastly, my heartfelt appreciation to the “road warrior” trainers who by planes, trains, automobiles, and determination showed up and delivered time after time, even when it wasn’t easy.

With a sense of perspective, I feel blessed to have had the privilege of knowing and working with so many dedicated and amazing people. I have been fortunate to be part of a community and a movement that wakes up courage, empowers young people to be active contributors and literally saves lives, emotionally and physically. This is a legacy we all get to share.

The world needs our work, our voices, and our commitment more than ever. We have more to do to help schools become communities of compassion. CM is in a unique and important position to leverage our experience and our success, allowing us to not only wake up the courage of young people but also inspire educational leaders. Educators are grappling with how to build a positive school culture, address school violence, teach academics, retain good staff, and regain the support of families and the broader community.

Despite the challenges and the tragedies that plague many schools, our Community Matters mission continues to guide us through the dark and into the light. On this auspicious day of remembrance, I remain hopeful, grateful, even eager to be in the “fire” of public education at a time of such great need.

As individuals we are effective, but together we are a force, a force that can provide hope, tools, resources, and support to youth and adults in schools everywhere.

In the spirit of community,

Rick Phillips

Rick Phillips is the founder and former Executive Director of Community Matters, and co-creator of the Safe School Ambassadors® Program.