From Bystander to Peacemaker - One Student’s Journey that Changed Their Life

October 22 2013

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Meet Donny Giovanni, one student who made a decision to learn valuable skills to stop bullying and how it changed his school and his life. Donny's talk was taken from a presentation he gave in November 2012 on his experience as a Safe School Ambassador. - Rick

"It’s been 7 years since I joined Safe School Ambassadors as a sophomore at Montgomery High (Santa Rosa, CA).  I agreed to do the program because I was both interested in helping my school and putting a stop to bullying… and.. I figured it would look pretty good for my college applications. 

What I didn’t realize was that the program would give me a leadership opportunity unlike any I had had in the past.

The two-day, off-campus training opened my eyes to the different ways I could become a change-agent; within my friend groups, on my sports teams, and among kids I hardly knew.  I had always had good intentions, but lacked a few key tools that would help me intervene and stop potentially hurtful scenarios.  The program truly gave me a new sense of confidence, resolve and compassion that I could voice regularly and effectively to my peers.

If I witnessed a teammate being made fun of, I would step in, if I saw a student being excluded, I would reach out, and if I saw tempers beginning to rise I would try
to diffuse the situation with equanimity.

While Safe School Ambassadors successfully propelled me into a leadership role, rest assured that every school across the country already has a multitude of “leaders”.

Unfortunately for us, these students’ high social standing doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong.

In fact, for many of these so-called “leaders”, each time they’ve put someone down, made a racist joke, or called out another’s insecurity, their peers have completely reinforced that behavior with laughter and/or passive agreement.

Everyone’s seen it happen, and it's exactly the type of feedback loop that leads to increased emotional torment, bullying and even violence—and it’s also exactly what the Safe School Ambassadors Program tackles head-on.

The program teaches these already persuasive students to never be a bystander to, or an instigator of abuse.  And when a Safe School Ambassador does rebuke an insult or instance of bullying, that action is tremendously more impactful than a mere slap on the wrist from an authority figure.

This bottom-up change is not only effective, but also infectious.  I saw it in the hallways of Montgomery High School and I saw it on my Varsity Baseball team—when support and respect get reinforced by the most out-spoken members of a group, those qualities become the rule rather than the exception.

In his book, The Social Animal, David Brooks writes that in high school we learn more about social experiences and interactions than anything else—including academics.  If that’s true, then why is it that we invest so little as a society into formally developing these precious skill sets and ways of thinking?  Why have we decided that learning the inner workings of a flower is compulsory while learning how be compassionate and mindful of others is elective?  After all, these are the same individuals that not too long from now will be voting in our elections, working in our cities, and perhaps most importantly—having children of their own.

At the end of the day, I think everyone, including the most seemingly rancorous high schoolers, understand that it sucks to be made fun of or bullied. They've heard the golden rule a thousand times and know what it means, but the fact is that it takes real courage to break social norms and stand up to mistreatment.

The Safe School Ambassadors Program wakes up that courage in young people.

In many ways, I see the program is a character building initiative with safer schools as a bi-product.  Both results are real and important, and I can say that today, 7 years later, I'm proud to call myself a Safe School Ambassador."



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