Category: News

Belonging is Common Sense

by Keith Hickman, Executive Director of Collective Impact, IIRP Graduate School

Jungle fever: referee Zack Clayton intervenes to count out champion George Foreman as he is knocked out by challenger Muhammad Ali in their famous bout in Zaire – Associated Press

On October 30, 1974, the sports world was turned on its head, when a 32 year-old former heavyweight boxing champion from my hometown in Louisville, KY, regained his title as a major underdog in Kinshasa, Zaire. Muhammad Ali’s defeat of a younger and seemingly invincible George Foreman was a defining moment in my life as an 8 year-old Black kid in search of belonging in a segregated city. It was during the post-fight interview, among the cheers and chants of “Ali Bomaye”, when his powerful words defined belonging for me and many other Black Louisvillians that evening. He looked directly into the camera, shook his finger and said “hello to all my friends in Louisville, KY…where I started.” Oh my, I thought, did he just say Louisville, and call me a friend? He continued, “my greatness started in Louisville, KY.” What, did he just say Louisville was great, that I was great? Then he shouted into the mic in a chanting rhythm, “Louisville, KY is one of the greatest cities in America…Louisville is the greatest, Louisville is the greatest, Louisville is the greatest.” With mouth agape, I knew then, I was somebody, I belonged, because the “People’s Champ” had made that clear to me and to the world. You see, Ali did that for us by simply remembering his roots in Louisville, where his greatness came from, where he belonged, and where he would return after his passing in 2016.

A sense of belonging is a strong connection to family, community/neighborhood, and school. Dr. Karyn Hall, Founder/Director DBT Center of Houston, in the March 24, 2014 issue of Psychology Today, views belonging as “a human need, just like the need for food and shelter.” For Black and Brown students, it is critical, because “feeling that you belong is most important in seeing value in life and in coping with intensely painful emotions”, a key point made by Dr. Hall.

The Hickman family when Keith was 8.

My journey, like many BIPOC students across this country, is a story of reclaiming human dignity and belonging. Growing up the youngest of ten, during the height of court-ordered school integration or busing, was a terrifying moment as a child that still makes me uneasy to this day. This is when I remember becoming aware of how racial identity and racial politics were going to play a role in my educational journey. Therefore, I needed an out, another option, to stop this thing called “busing” that was taking me away from my community and my neighborhood friends. The thought of starting middle school by hopping on a bus, something that I had never done before, riding it to some unknown place, and then fitting in, was scary to say the least, especially given the violent racist reactions and resistance that I witnessed on local television to Black children being bused to mostly “white schools”. Shouts of the “N-Word”, the turning over of school buses, and the vitriol being spewed for us to “go home”, from the mouths of white parents and white students, was quite traumatic. My response, my first act of protest, was to resist in the best way I knew how and make the case to my parents for an alternative solution.

J. Graham Brown School – As of 2013, every year Brown School has placed in the top three or four schools across the Commonwealth of Kentucky in both the ACT and the Kentucky Core Content Test.

To my luck and surprise, the J. Graham Brown School, the first “magnet school” in the Jefferson County Public School District (JCPS) in Louisville, had recently opened. The genius behind the school was founder Martha Ellison, a visionary and early restorative practitioner, who believed,
“We do not claim to be better than any other school, but our informal, less authoritarian, open environment, combined with the degrees of emphasis on the arts, diversity and the community, combine to create a visible, observable difference and to provide another option for Jefferson County student and parents.”

Now, that was a school I could happily skip to. There, my roots of belonging were nurtured by educators that were courageous and caring and not threatened by my Blackness. So why is creating a structure of belonging beyond hope so important? Because hope requires action.

Structuring Belonging
The amazing Peter Block, American author, consultant, and community builder, powerfully reminds us that,
“We are a community of possibilities, not a community of problems. Community exists for the sake of belonging and takes its identity from the gifts, generosity, and accountability of its citizens.”

In fact, our youngest citizens, that walk in and out of school doors every day, are truly seeking the gifts adults have to offer. If the invitation is genuine and meaningful, then the student gift in return is authenticity of self and community. Therefore, students need to be accepted for who they are, both problems and promises, and their potential nurtured by every caring adult on staff, thus opening up the possibilities that await them. A structure of belonging can’t exist when students are segregated, isolated and marginalized, which often occurs when adults use their authority ungracefully and punitively.

In recent studies by the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, 2019 and the Search Institutes report on Insights & Evidence: The Intersection of Developmental Relationships, Equitable Environments, and SEL, 2020, organizations and schools that fully integrate SEL in everything they do, achieve the full promise and outcomes of the methods. The critical variable, they show, is relationship. In fact, student transformation is likely to occur as these relationships develop within the context of diversity, equity, and inclusion. And report after report points to the fact that student connection and belonging are strong indicators of academic, social, emotional and post-secondary success. We know from the extensive research from Healthy People 2030, that health and mortality are associated with levels of education. As that report states,
“Children who routinely experience forms of social discrimination — like bullying — are more likely to struggle with math and reading. They’re also less likely to graduate from high school or go to college. This means they’re less likely to get safe, high-paying jobs and more likely to have health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and depression.”

I return back to my own experience at the J. Graham Brown School, the only school in the State of Kentucky where kindergartners and seniors learn together under one roof —this is belonging and connection! Where cross-age mentoring and learning opportunities are inter-generational – this is belonging and connection! Where self-directed learning is student voice and agency – this is belonging and connection! And inclusivity and celebration of diversity is the demographic and reality – simply put, belonging and connection!

Equity is Belonging
You can’t build equity without students belonging and being connected to their schools. This requires a systemic and intentional approach to create learning environments that are multimodal. For example, recently the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and the IIRP Graduate School, co-wrote a white paper supporting aligning restorative practices and social and emotional learning to improve school climate by strengthening relationships throughout the school building.
There are five areas that schools must target in their whole-school approach:

1. Align RP and SEL under a single initiative.
2. Integrate preventive practices into all aspects of daily life in the school.
3. Establish restorative responses to behavior that promote SEL.
4. Strengthen staff skills and mindsets that mutually reinforce RP and SEL so they can model practices and support students.
5. Involve students, families, and community partners in SEL and RP initiatives.

Aligned, these two evidenced-based approaches share common characteristics for inclusive and welcoming environments, healthy relationships for all students, long-term academic success and social-emotional well-being, and reaching equitable opportunities and outcomes. These common characteristics were definitely elements throughout my K-12 experience.
I feel fortunate that the Brown School created a space for me to belong during one of the most traumatic times of my childhood; that I learned early on from caring adults what social, emotional and cultural connection meant – and that I had a hero, the “People’s Champ”, that looked me in the eyes from the continent of Africa and proclaimed that day in 1974 that I was great and that “Louisville, KY is the greatest city in America.”

Keith Hickman is the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) Executive Director of Collective Impact. In this role, he works with partner organizations, both domestically and globally, to pursue the IIRP mission of positively impacting social health. He served as an advisor to the Maryland Commission on the School-to-Prison Pipeline and Restorative Practices, is a partner scholar on the CASEL Equity Work Group, and is a member of the Research Development and Design Team for the California Safe, Healthy, Responsive Schools Network. Keith and IIRP are valued partners and collaborators with Community Matters.



Social Emotional Learning = Positive Student Outcomes: Critical Strategies for Increasing Academic Achievement and Improving Mental Health

By Rick Phillips, Founder, Community Matters

(Register here for our webinar “Social-Emotional Learning = Positive Student Outcomes – Strategies for Increasing Academic Achievement and Improving Mental Health”, happening Thursday, February 4th, 2021 at 1:00 pm Pacific Time.)

Social-emotional development is not in competition with academics
– in fact it is integral to academic success.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the related losses is not seen in the death toll alone. It has also taken a terrible toll on our country’s students, families and school staff. Educators everywhere report that social isolation and loneliness is negatively affecting our students and contributing to failing grades and declining mental health. As reported in Education Week, a survey by America’s Promise Alliance of 3,300 teenagers in June found that they are much more concerned than usual about their health and the health and financial stability of their families.

  • Over a quarter of teens said that they are losing more sleep, feeling more unhappy or depressed, feeling under constant strain, or losing confidence in themselves.
  • Forty percent said they had not been offered any social or emotional support by an adult from their school while their school buildings were closed last spring.

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer or a single curriculum to effectively address the issues of disconnection and uncertainty. What we know is that the most constructive way to deal with issues of anxiety, depression and isolation is through connection – connecting with friends, family and trusted others. Therefore, school leaders must develop and implement innovative school-wide SEL plans, plans that help children and young people feel connected, stay positive and remain hopeful.

The good news is there are many organizations including CASEL and others, who have developed strategies, resources, tools and activities that effectively address social and emotional learning and support academic achievement.

Here at Community Matters, our dedicated team has been developing practical and easy-to- use SEL resources as well as converting many of our current SEL and youth voice programs into a virtual platform that can support schools while distance learning.

The following are some of the strategies and actions that Community Matters recommends and provides to schools as part of effective SEL planning while distance learning.

  • Use inquiry as a teaching practice – encourage all teachers to ask questions as a way to build and strengthen trust with students as well as provide them with the opportunity to share their feelings and issues
  • Focus on self-care – Help students identify self-care practices that they can utilize while learning from home, such as exercise, journaling, engaging in art and music, etc.
  • Teach mindfulness – Help teachers increase their capacity to provide age-appropriate best practices of mindfulness including, breathing, meditating.
  • Encourage journaling – Introduce the value of gratitude journaling as well as journaling feelings, concerns, hope and wishes.
  • Buddy Up – encourage students to pair up with a fellow student and help each other with both schoolwork and feeling connected.
  • Empower students – provide opportunities for students to engage in meaningful activities and volunteering, knowing that committing to something that’s greater than oneself contributes to improved emotional health.
  • Use music and art – provide ideas and resources for utilizing music and art while learning from home.
  • Use restorative practices – use community building listening circles to support students to share and connect and affective statements in dealing with student behavior.
  • Provide resources for addressing mental health issues – identify and share how to access hot lines, podcasts, websites and help students also identify trusted adults in their lives they can reach out to.

While many of these ideas seem clear and understandable to some, there are some teachers and staff who do not have experience teaching SEL and as a result are uncomfortable in that domain. The key to overcoming their reluctance and gaining their buy-in is to provide them with the resources, support and time to learn and to deliver these essential SEL practices.

Community Matters stands ready and committed to assist educators with support and resources by:

  • Providing a no-cost “discovery session” which will assist educators in assessing what’s working, what’s not and what needs to be done to have an effective SEL plan in place
  • Providing best practice professional development training, both on-line and in-person
  • Providing best practices for gaining school-wide buy-in and delivering online training for administrators and other key staff

Students across our country are struggling in the upside down COVID-19 world.  It is difficult, if not impossible, for them to focus and to process academic information with brains that are anxious, stressed and distracted.  If we want students to pass tests and maintain their academic achievements, we need to double down on efforts to create a positive school climate and address the emotional welfare of the students in our care.

By making social and emotional learning a top priority, and having a well-developed SEL plan, students can emerge from this pandemic with greater resiliency, secure in the knowledge that they have adult allies at school who are there to assist them. When this social-emotional foundation is firmly established, students will be better able to focus, participate, achieve and even thrive. The positive relationships they develop and the caring culture that evolves will have life-long benefits for us and them, long after the pandemic is over.

Contact Community Matters for your no-cost discovery session and learn more about our programs and services at

Rick Phillips is renowned for his expertise and extensive work in the field of school safety and school climate improvement. He is the founder and former Executive Director of Community Matters, and is the lead developer of the evidence-based program Safe School Ambassadors® (SSA), implemented in over 2,000 schools across 43 states in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Canada, Japan, Paraguay and Guam.

Rick earned his Master of Science Degree in Education from the University of Southern California, where he was a recipient of a United States Office of Education Fellowship. He has been a principal and teacher at elementary, middle, and high schools, a school district and county office of education administrator, and a Regional Director at the Healthy Kids Center for the California Department of Education.


Safe School Ambassadors® – Stories of Impact

By Shaylene King, Community Matters Trainer

When I began training with the Safe School Ambassadors® Program almost five years ago, I knew it was the solution to positively change school climate on campuses. What I didn’t realize, however, was that Safe School Ambassadors not only changes school climate, it changes lives. I know we all have stories we could share to affirm the work we do but I want to share three that have been pivotal to me in recognizing how lives of the past, present and future have been changed because of our Safe School Ambassadors Program.

Past: A few years ago, in conversation with my waiter after an SSA training, I mentioned why I was in town. Tears pooled in his eyes as he told me he was once a Safe School Ambassador. He shared how the job and actions as an Ambassador were life skills he’s used in his everyday life with friends, coworkers and even his family since graduating from high school over 20 years ago!

Present: Recently after debriefing the training activity Just By Looking, a student gave me a note which read, “Thank you. I’m so excited to have a family group because it’s the first time I’ve ever had a real family.” I’ve seen this activity bond students, adults and family groups but I didn’t understand the magnitude it could play in the life of one student individually.

Future: A Counselor and SSA Program Advisor I’ve worked with for 3 years shared with me how two Ambassadors thwarted a school shooting when a student showed them a gun and stated how he planned to use it. The Ambassadors noticed the type of mistreatment, had to think about what to do and chose the action Getting Help, quickly going to an adult they trusted. Students from this school who might not be alive today have a future because Ambassadors did the job we’ve trained them to do. That’s the power of the Safe School Ambassadors Program!

Shaylene King is an author, educator, anti-bullying activist, and trainer with Community Matters. She is the founder of The Mean Girl Extinction Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to end girl on girl bullying.

A Call to Action: How to Meet the Educational Crisis Facing Students, Staff and Families

As educational leaders meet to address the growing number of students experiencing anxiety and failing grades, one thing is clear; we cannot expect students to thrive in academics when their social emotional needs are not being met. Research has shown that until students feel safe and connected to a caring school community, learning and academic achievement is compromised.

If we want our young people to achieve, pass their classes and graduate then job #1 for our schools is to develop and implement a Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Plan. Such a plan provides resources, training, and support to school staff to help students process their emotions, get the help they need and connect with peers, so each student knows they are not alone in hard times, and that the school “has their back”. Until these actions are taken, many students will likely struggle and even fail.

Here are some critical action steps that can be taken while distance learning and some to be initiated in a hybrid setting (distance learning combined with classroom instruction).

7 Recommended Practices to Promote Social Emotional Wellness in Distance and Hybrid Classrooms:

  • Restorative Practices approaches such as Listening and Community Building circles
  • Development of SEL competencies
  • Social activities that promote positive connection, communication and reflection (Journaling, icebreaker games)
  • Peer support groups to assist struggling students or prevent students from further isolating
  • Advisory periods that provide small group processing and support
  • Individualized support for students with greatest needs
  • SEL skills training and support for students

Community Matters understands the importance of helping students feel connected and empowered during this time. Our programs for students and adults support school efforts to utilize pro-social practices that foster connection, promote digital and real-world citizenship, and improve well-being and mental health. We also offer training for staff and administrators that support them with restorative practices skills and provide tools to cultivate classroom communities where students’ emotional needs are addressed so they are prepared to achieve academically.

Helping our youth to thrive in times of uncertainty provides unique opportunities for collaboration to strengthen our communities. Let’s work together to make sure students can succeed despite the obstacles presented by the current crisis.

Rick Phillips On Getting Kids Back To School

June 29, 2020   KSRO Radio

KSRO morning host Pat Kerrigan talks with Rick Phillips, Founder of Community Matters, about returning to school, and the social-emotional needs of students, staff and parents.

Listen Now

Why Social and Emotional Learning Begins at Home

by Jan Dennis

Whether it’s building a strong vocabulary or solving mathematical equations, a child’s life revolves around learning. However, some lessons go beyond the chalkboard — especially those that involve their social and emotional well-being.

From helping them understand their emotions to setting the right goals and showing empathy to others, as a parent, you want your child to be equipped with the necessary social and emotional skills through social-emotional learning (SEL). And to ensure that your child develops them, it’s important to remember that learning always starts at home.

Why You Need to Teach Your Child Social-Emotional Learning

Your child is in a special stage where they’re filled with genuine curiosity. And at home, they’re presented with opportunities to learn more about the world. For instance, if you catch your child watching the news, they shouldn’t only be informed about the current events, but also understand the social and emotional aspects of the issues. This, in turn, will help them gain value-adding perspectives on life that they’ll take to the classroom, playground, and into the future. In fact, researchers from the University of Washington have found that social and emotional skills are key components of a child’s educational success and future interpersonal adjustment, which is why parents need to instill these values early on.

However, while all parents want what’s best for their children, this is much easier said than done. And despite the wealth of books, research, and well-meaning relatives and friends, it’s normal to still feel a little lost as a parent — especially with regard to SEL — and that’s ok. Angie Walston, a Certified Family Life Educator and a professor of human development and family studies at Maryville University, highlights the importance of being proactive and compassionate towards children and the unique ways they are learning about the world around them. She teaches the 3-Cs: compassionate, consistent, and calibrating, and this approach also provides parents with a strong foundation in fostering their child’s SEL, as they tap into their own social and emotional skills.

How You Can Teach Social-Emotional Learning at Home

But, how exactly can you help your child cultivate their SEL? Here are some key ways to help you at home.

Create a Routine for Them
To help your child get in touch with social and emotional beings, they must be in a safe and stable environment. To this end, you should establish a routine for them. Child therapist Genevieve von Lob told the Huff Post that consistency and structure are especially calming for children. A balanced and healthy routine will make them feel safe and give them confidence as you teach them SEL.

Encourage Them to Help Out
Teaching your child about the important issues around them is crucial for their SEL. Whether it’s teaching them how to donate old toys or taking them to a soup kitchen, encouraging them to help others will not only help them strengthen their self-awareness, but also teach them to see the world from the perspective of others.

Partner with Your Child’s School

As Community Matters founder Rick Phillips previously shared here, it’s equally important that your child is in a safe environment at school to foster their SEL. That being said, you should get in touch with their teachers and ask how they’re helping your child develop their social and emotional skills. This way, you can further enhance their development, while ensuring consistency for their learning.

Jan Dennis is a social psychologist with a fascination for family and early childhood. When she’s not working, Jan enjoys urban gardening and spending time with her son.

Post COVID-19: Social Emotional Learning is Job #1 to Effectively Re-Opening Schools

by Rick Phillips, Founder of Community Matters

In this COVID-19 upside down world there is no returning to business as usual, and there is no going back to the way it was. Our communities, our country and our world have been altered like never before. So, when schools re-open job number one must be to ensure that students feel, safe, welcome and connected to caring adults.

Imagine what is must be like for the millions of young people, (K-12) cut off from their schools, their friends, teachers, coaches and all the other caring adults who support them day in and day out. Imagine what it’s like for them not knowing who among the staff and students may not be there when they return. Imagine what emotions our children are experiencing, isolated and cut off from the familiar safety nets that are no longer in place. And imagine what they are going to need from the entire school staff when they finally get to go back to school.

We understand that the anxiety, uncertainty and trauma our children and young people are experiencing is also being felt by educators and families as well. School staffs, from the principal to the bus driver will be in need of support and some coaching on how best to come back to work and address their own self-care needs, as well as being prepared to assist students in their re-entry.

We all want the best outcomes for our schools. And for schools to be successful we need to understand that there will be intense pressure to catch up and get back to learning immediately.  However, let’s be clear that the educational outcomes of

  • positive attendance
  • high achievement and
  • few discipline incidents

occur best when we adhere to the following axiom: Students don’t care what we know. . . until they know we care.

This is corroborated by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), who in the largest longitudinal study of young people and schools found that “the best predictor for student success is connectivity”.

Focusing on school climate and social-emotional learning (SEL) has been the heart of our mission at Community Matters for more than 20 years. We have partnered with thousands of schools in more than 40 states providing strategies, programs and services that strengthen school climate, reduce bullying, cyber-bullying and harassment, and equip staff with the tools and skills needed to connect and build strong relationships with their students.

Our team of dedicated staff and trainers are working diligently (remotely) to address the needs of schools by designing online services for distance learning while schools are operating remotely. And when schools do open, we will be there, ready to provide effective and proven resources, trainings and programs designed to address the social and emotional needs of all members of school communities.

When we lead with our courage, when we plan from the “heart” and when we put people and relationships first, especially in these turbulent times we are being our better angels, better citizens, better educators, and better people.

Please contact us at Community Matters to learn more about how we can support you and your entire school community as you welcome students back to school. Visit our website at or call us at 707.823.6159.

An Intrapersonal Narrative of LGBTQ+

by Javier Cabrera-Rosales, Board Member, Positive Images
(Originally published in March 2017)

The mission of Community Matters is to; “wake up the courage” of young people to speak up when they know of and/or witness any acts of intolerance and injustice in their schools and communities. We are grateful to collaborate with many mission-driven organizations like Positive Images, who are on the forefront of addressing the needs of LGBTQ+ young people in the Santa Rosa, California community. Our guest blogger this week is Javier Cabrera-Rosales, former Director of Programs and current Board Memeber at Positive Images.

Many times in the common narrative we hear the terms “high risk population”, “mental health challenges”, suicide, depression, anxiety, and many more descriptions commonly associated with LGBTQ+ youth and young adults. The truth is that LGBTQ+ folks still suffer a myriad of struggles on a daily basis; yet for this blog I want to address the intrapersonal connection that is so vital for the resilience and survival of many LGBTQ+ adolescents and adults.

I have been working with young LGBTQ+ people for over five years, and I have noticed the power that is harnessed when each one discovers the internal tools they can access to use in the outside world. Many of us growing up saw very little of the successful, thriving, strong, and respected LGBTQ+ characters in our media, society, and in our own cultures. Certainly, the historical image of what it means to be LGBTQ+ has just recently become a positive one, and that negative stigma still haunts us today. When we do not have healthy role models and have no concept of what it may mean to grow up in a society as a queer person, certain patterns are created: isolation, alienation/lack of belonging, social anxiety and a plethora of other symptoms of not feeling connected.

This now brings us to the question, if we cannot change the world around us to be more accepting overnight, then how do we cope and/or strengthen our internal-selves to take on the day-to-day struggles?

Support is a key, crucial ingredient.

Positive Images is a non-profit organization in Santa Rosa, offering support to young LGBTQ+ folks throughout Sonoma County for over 26 years. Through a balance of therapeutic models, life coaching techniques, and a deep understanding of constant change and fluidity in our world, we are able to help our members find their own voices and build the tools they need to protect themselves. Self-reflection, accountability, practicing feedback, group facilitation dynamics, and engaging in difficult dialogue are just a few of the skills that youth gain through our programs.

In our current, diagnosis-and-therapy-happy world, at times it is easy to forget that people truly are the experts of their own experience, and simply offering them the space to explore those experiences can be life changing. Out of the desire for emotional safety and erasing the fear of ridicule, LGBTQ+ folks are relieved to disclose some of the profound thoughts and experiences they have in social (school, household, medical offices, et cetera.) settings. In this way, Positive Images provides the oldest remedy possible: unconditional love and attention.

Sexual Misconduct In Our Schools And How Students Hold The Key

by Rick Phillips, Founder, Community Matters

Sexual abuse and molestation present a significant and growing concern in our schools and communities. Unfortunately, inappropriate touching, sexting, porn, grooming, date rape, and other forms of sexual abuse are becoming more incessant. Educators, law enforcement and legislators are struggling to find solutions to this disturbing trend.

While some instances of sexual assault clearly go unreported, the AP found 17,000 official reports of sexual assaults at schools between 2011-15. Some of the assaults that happen at schools are caused by teachers or staff, while roughly 20% of educators also suffer sexual harassment or assaults.

Often, the reaction to these troubling issues has led to harsher laws and policies, along with increased consequences, all of which have not proven entirely effective in solving the problem. What has proven to be successful is a multi-tiered approach that includes engaging all school stakeholders – staff, families and students – and implementing prevention-based education initiatives with clear policies and practices that are restorative.

All school staff can benefit from further education about sexual harassment so they are better prepared to identify and address it. Clear understanding of the difference between bullying and sexual harassment and assault can better equip educators to deal appropriately with the issue, explain the difference to students, and support students in coming forward with their experiences.

Additionally, families need to be educated and supported in understanding the issues more clearly, to learn the most effective ways to communicate with their children and the steps to take when their children tell them about any concerns they have.

A third and critical stakeholder that is often overlooked are the students. Engaging and empowering students is very effective because they are often in the best position to prevent, stop and report incidents of sexual inappropriateness. Students see, hear and know things adults don’t and they can intervene in ways that adults can’t. They are generally aware of any incidents before adults are informed. These factors put students on the “front lines”, where they have tremendous power in setting social norms of kindness, connectivity, and the courage to speak up, all of which contribute greatly to having a safer school with a positive climate.

Here are some specific actions students can take to prevent and address sexual misconduct:

1. Notice and identify what is happening and think about the harmful effects it may cause. When students have increased awareness of the covert and overt ways sexual misconduct occurs, they are more able to identify it and willing to take action.

2. Recognize and determine the type of misconduct, the severity, who is involved, and the environment in which the incident is happening. Assessing and discerning the situation helps to determine the appropriate action to take and whether it should be reported.

3. Reach out and befriend a fellow student who may be targeted. These students are most vulnerable and likely to be subjected to manipulation and mistreatment. By creating connections, students show their support and model positive behavior to their peers that demonstrates a culture of looking out for one another.

4. Be an upstander, not a bystander. By speaking up and acting, students model positive peer pressure and their actions indicate that sexual misconduct is not acceptable on campus.

5. Reach out to a trusted adult and report potentially dangerous situations. Helping a student who is at risk and might otherwise not seek help can help ensure that the student gets the support they need before the situation worsens.

Young people are in a unique and vital position to make a positive impact in preventing and stopping sexual misconduct. We believe that students at all levels hold the key! They are ready to serve as change agents and upstanders in their schools and communities. When they become concerned, they want to do the right thing. What the evidence tells us, is when we engage, equip and empower young people, they can and will play a critical role in looking out for each other, resulting in safer schools and communities.

When we utilize a multi-tiered systemic approach, one that engages and empowers the whole school community, we significantly increase the likelihood of reducing and stopping incidents of sexual misconduct in schools and we keep our children and young people safe.

The Power of Youth to Reduce Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Schools

by Sami Ryan

“We all act like it’s just fun, that everyone’s having a good time. But being here today and hearing everyone’s story, you realize that everyone is also struggling with it, either with family and addiction, or friends going too far. There’s more to it, for all of us.”

High school student, Northern California

I overheard this comment from a student at one of our Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs (ATOD) Prevention Trainings, and it stuck with me. When ATODs are such a pervasive and prevalent issue facing teens, especially vaping, how do we help them connect with one another and provide space for them to share their stories in a safe, meaningful way? When given permission to be vulnerable, to open up to one another, we see time and again that students are desperate for connection, beyond their Snaps or Instagram posts. They want validation that the problems they are struggling with aren’t unique to them.

The big question, the one we are constantly working on here at Community Matters, is how can we connect young people to one another, deeply and meaningfully, so that they can answer their own questions and enlist support from each other? The answer, we have found, lies in our peer-to-peer framework which postulates the following: engage, empower, and equip young people to be contributors, not just consumers, at their school. When young people feel valued, seen, and heard, they will begin working towards creating a better school.

With this fundamental principle as our foundation, the ATOD Prevention Training addresses the perpetual problem of teen alcohol and drug use, abuse, and misuse. While other alcohol and drug prevention trainings might suggest a “just say no” approach or rely on fear-based teaching, Community Matters focuses on empowering youth. The question we ask is: can we encourage young people to become upstanders, increasing their likelihood of standing up and speaking up when they witness dangerous or unhealthy choices being made by their friends?

The ATOD training design provides a safe, structured, deep dive into the unique experiences, beliefs, values, and assumptions youth have around ATODs.  Once they realize how complex their own feelings are towards ATODs, and recognize that other students are grappling with this ambivalence, the conversations deepen, the connections grow, and they begin to realize how important it is to learn what to do or say when they see their friends entering dangerous situations.

The most meaningful point in the training I’ve witnessed is when participants drop into a Restorative Circle together. With guidelines such as listen from the heart, speak from the heart, say just enough, and don’t rehearse, the students begin sharing with each other, and eventually dive deeper when asked to answer “Who is harmed and how by ATODs.” As students begin sharing, the energy in the room changes. Students frequently say that they share things in that circle they haven’t ever spoken aloud to another person. There is immeasurable power in being heard, of sharing your story, of opening up to your peers and having them respond with empathy, compassion, and ultimately, understanding. An understanding that says “I see your pain, and I recognize it, because I too have experienced a loss that could have been prevented.”

At this stage of opening and increased awareness we then ask students if they are ready to learn tools and techniques on what to do or say to support their friends in making healthy and safe decisions around ATODs. It is a moment of transformation as the students become eager for ways to prevent a future story from being shared in a future circle of a tragic ending to a preventable situation. By the end of the second day of training, students have learned six “Upstander Actions,” communication skills such as Exiting, Supporting, Reasoning, Active Listening, Directing, and Getting Help, in order to develop their toolbox of being an Upstander.

As trainers and program designers, we can’t take credit for much. We can set the stage, hold space, initiate conversations, facilitate not as a sage on the stage but as a guide on the side. But at the end of the day, it’s the courage and compassion that lives in each student we are lucky enough to meet; the courage that helps us step up when it’s easier to step back, to speak up instead of stay silent.

So, the answer is yes: waking up the courage and compassion of young people does in fact increase their likelihood of standing up and speaking up when they witness dangerous or unhealthy choices being made by their friends with drugs and alcohol.

Now that we’ve found a way that is working, it is our responsibility to keep going.

For more information on Community Matters’ ATOD Prevention Prevention visit

Sami Ryan is a former Training and Program Development Coordinator for Community Matters. She worked on the design and development of Youth Empowerment Trainings, as well as training youth directly in the field. Sami supported the development of Community Matters’ ATOD program in addition to delivering this training in schools in Northern California.