School Climate and Student Empowerment

April 29 2014


  • Erica Vogel, Director of Strategic Relations
    Erica Vogel
    Director of Strategic Relations
  • Rick Phillips, Founder, Community Matters
    Rick Phillips
    Founder, Community Matters

We all know students are the majority of the population on campus, and therefore have a significant impact on the climate around them.  In the past few blogs we have been discussing the five determinants of our Whole School Climate Framework and how both parents and school staff have a strong influence on school climate.  One of our goals at Community Matters is to tap the power and potential of students to positively influence school climate from the “inside out”. 

I am excited to have the opportunity to talk now about the student determinant.  As Director of Programs and Services at Community Matters, I have had the privilege and honor to work with hundreds of schools across the nation to begin waking up the courage of students to stand up and speak up… helping students to find their voices and compassion and move from being Bystanders when they witness mistreatment to becoming Upstanders who step in and take action.

Why students? We believe students are in the best position to begin the climate improvement process for several reasons:

  • They see, hear, and know things that adults don’t
  • They can intervene in ways that adults can’t
  • They’re on the scene of an incident before adults
  • Adults make the rules, but students set the social norms

Students are 90% of a school population, yet they are often underutilized.  Adults often see students as consumers rather than contributors.  If students are part of the problem, we also know that they must be a part of the solution.  At Community Matters we believe that if we can harness their power and potential, we can begin to shift the climate from the inside out.

Through our flagship program, Safe School Ambassadors®, we engage, equip, and empower the students to be the peacemakers we want them to be – to contribute to safe and positive campus climates.

The Safe School Ambassadors program is an evidence-based bystander education program that starts by identifying and engaging, not just any students, but the socially influential students that set the norms on campus.   We know that to create lasting change, we must first start with a small group of committed individuals that have the ability to influence their peers.  Once the socially influential students from all cliques on campus are identified, we train them to recognize mistreatment and equip them with skills to intervene safely and effectively. Through group meetings, they continue to build relationships with each other and adult leaders that provide on-going support and skills practice throughout the year.

We know that the program works, not only because it is an evidence-based program with results that show a 33% reduction in suspensions*, but because we also have the opportunity to see the intervention summaries of the students, to hear the stories, to see the articles and ultimately to be a part of the changes that schools and communities are experiencing through the Safe School Ambassadors program.  From coast to coast, we are hearing how Safe School Ambassadors are positively shaping school climate and their communities.  For example:

  • In San Diego, CA, one of the student Ambassadors wrote a powerful article on the influence the SSA program has had on their campus. Highlights of this article are below:
    • “Student bystanders are extremely common in the case of school mistreatment. They are more often on the “inside” of the circle and can intervene and diffuse the situation in an effective and faster way than teachers can.”
    • “It works because it’s the kids doing the job, not just parents and teachers”, said new [SSA] member, Matthew, a junior. “Other students should know it’s not snitching.”
  • Central High School Ambassadors in Cheyenne, WY, organized a march this April to end bullying.  Each year, the Ambassadors at the district’s four high schools rotate responsibility in organizing this empowering event to raise awareness in the community.
  • In Washingtonville, NY, Ambassadors have been mentoring the district’s elementary students to stand up when they see mistreatment. In classroom presentations, Ambassadors share examples with the younger students on what they can do to make their school a safer place.

Students are seeking opportunities to feel empowered and engaged.  It is crucial that we provide pro-social opportunities for them to meet this need so they do not seek it in risk-taking behaviors.  Let’s remember, our students are our allies and we want to give them the opportunities to be the leaders we wish them to become. In order to make change, adults have to help facilitate the process, but they cannot do it alone.  By enlisting students in the process, change truly can come from the inside out.

To learn more about Community Matters or to find out how you too can wake up the courage in your students, contact Erica Vogel at 707-823-6159 ext. 103

SAMHSA’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs & Practices, Safe School Ambassadors Intervention Summary

Making Helix Safer, One Student At A Time an article written by Ambassador Alexis Cormier, 26 January 2014 in the Helix Life

March against bullying:  Hundreds walked in downtown Cheyenne on Saturday to call for an end to bullying by Becky Orr and published online on Saturday April 12, 2014 for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle

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