Category: News

National Bullying Prevention Month – The Power of Student Voice

by Jade Sizemore, Outreach & Program Coordinator, Community Matters

Bullying can take many forms, from physical aggression and intimidation to more subtle behaviors that might not be apparent to an onlooker. In honor of National Bullying Prevention Month, we would like to draw attention to all types of bullying, especially those that are less obvious yet pervasive. Seemingly subtle put-downs, teasing, and acts of exclusion, are all forms of mistreatment that can lead a child to feel insecure and unsafe.

With teachers and administrators already facing unmanageable workloads, we must begin to view students as capable contributors to a culture of change. Student bystanders see, hear, and know things adults don’t, can intervene in ways adults can’t, and are often on the scene of an incident before an adult. They are the first “boots on the ground”, and are a critical resource for positively impacting the crisis of bullying in our schools.

Given our experience with providing support, training and consultation to more than 2,000 schools, we know the “inside-out” approach is key to successfully shifting this social paradigm. This relationship-based approach is built on a foundation of restorative practices and utilizes students as resources for minimizing and preventing acts of bullying and violence. It emphasizes the power of student voice and the importance of youth and adult relationships.

Let’s do more than instruct our youth. Let’s empower them.

Using a peer-to-peer approach that empowers student voice is the quickest, most effective, and most cost-efficient way to change social norms on campus. By training the socially influential leaders of each clique on campus to be examples of courage and compassion, the social acceptability of bullying can be eradicated. This is the model employed by our Safe School Ambassadors® Program (SSA).

Evidenced-based research has proven that implementing SSA is a long-term, sustainable solution. For any school climate improvement program to be impactful, daily attention must be given to even the most subtle discrimination, intimidation, exclusion, and microaggressions. Here are some things to start paying attention to today:

• Ingenuine or passive-aggressive compliments
• Students being called by new nicknames- possibly an insult or type of taunting
• Gossip- both on and off-campus, including stories related to social media
• Exclusion or withdrawal
• Unexplained absences or complaints of feeling unwell

Bullying is not an inevitable act of youth. It is a conditioned behavior that can continue into adulthood. But there is a solution. Intervention must be swift, and discipline needs to be focused on restoration rather than punishment. Community Matters offers programs and services that help to create educational environments where learning potential is maximized, discipline incidents are reduced, and children can become caring, responsible citizens.

This work we do is vital, and we look forward to continuing collaborative partnerships with those who also believe that compassion and empathy are the key to our future. We extend our appreciation to all the organizations around the country that help to shine a spotlight on this urgent epidemic. And finally, we are ever-grateful for the thousands of students who day-in and day-out express their courage and speak up when they encounter meanness, intolerance and injustice. Together we are making a difference.

How Youth Empowerment Leads to a Positive School Climate and Academic Success

By Diana Curtin, CEO Community Matters

When effective youth empowerment is integrated as an integral way of operating, it is transformative for students, adults and schools. National best practices and current research validates that when schools make youth empowerment a cornerstone of their comprehensive school climate efforts, schools become communities where staff and students feel connected. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that feeling connected at school is the strongest protective factor for students to decrease substance use, school absenteeism, early sexual initiation, and violence; and notes the strong correlation between school connectedness and academic success.

We define youth empowerment as an attitudinal, structural, and cultural process whereby young people gain the ability, authority, and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of others, including youth and adults. In schools where young people are empowered to have influence on decisions and afforded opportunities to lead and serve, they naturally feel more self-confident and have an increased sense of pride, ownership and connectedness for and at their school. This sense of empowerment naturally leads to a more positive school climate that supports increased competence, academic achievement and overall student success.

Best practices for increasing student voice and empowerment in schools include offering a variety of opportunities for students to have influence in decision making in the classroom, on the playground, for the campus and for the school. Even the youngest of students have valuable insight and can provide input and ideas, they just need the avenue and encouragement to be contributors and to be heard and acknowledged. It makes sense to consider and value the opinions of the largest population on campus – the students. The following youth empowerment opportunities incorporate leadership, service, input and decision making:

  • Serving on a climate committee, site council, parent-student organization etc.
  • Student Council and committees
  • Student led clubs and initiatives that they drive
  • Student led campaigns that promote a value or initiative they stand behind
  • Leadership opportunities for more than just the leadership classes (consider the playground/campus, classrooms, and projects)
  • Community service opportunities for the school and community that include a service-learning component
  • Peer mediating, mentoring and tutoring
  • Restorative Practice leaders
  • Serving as a Safe School Ambassador

As the CEO for Community Matters, I am a firm believer and advocate of our evidence-based Safe School Ambassadors® (SSA) Program as a best practice youth empowerment platform that has been active in 2,000 schools across the US and five countries. I have witnessed how this program transforms the lives of students and schools by empowering and equipping young people to find and use their voice to effect positive change.

The SSA Program fosters school safety by empowering influential students to safely intervene when they witness mistreatment such as bullying, cyberbullying and other harmful behaviors that can lead to tragedies such as suicide and gun violence. Consider this incredible statistic: on average, student Ambassadors intervene with actions two or more times per week. During a school year, these individual actions add up to more than 2,400 interventions, which impacts the entire school by establishing a more positive climate and culture.

SSA is a long-term prevention and early intervention program. Because climate and social norms in a school are created over time, it requires a concentrated and time-oriented approach to change the established norms. Therefore, the SSA Program is most successful when it is implemented and championed with a long-term strategic approach in mind. It is most effective when implemented over a 3-year timeframe, allowing it to develop strong roots that anchor it firmly into school culture and practice. After the first three years of Community Matters providing the SSA Training, schools are provided the opportunity to move into a sustainability model whereby the school takes over implementation and leadership of the program. With this approach, the SSA Program and the premise of effective youth empowerment become embedded into the school practices as a way of thinking, communicating and behaving.

When effective youth empowerment becomes the way of operating, school climate becomes more positive; one built on relationships, inclusivity and connection. As the school climate warms, students feel safer, more engaged, and are better equipped to lean in and learn. When these conditions are present, we see academic achievement and overall student success increase.

Student ambassadors train against bullying, violence

September 9, 2019 KUAM News

About 400 recruited students from nine private schools and one public high school participated in the two-day Safe School Ambassadors® training that was hosted for the sixth year by the Judiciary of Guam in partnership with the Guam Department of Education.

Read the article

Pat Kerrigan interviews Community Matters CEO Diana Curtin

August 1, 2019 KSRO Radio

Pat Kerrigan speaks with Community Matters CEO Diana Curtin about our mission and the Safe School Ambassadors® Program, and how it changes the culture on school campuses.

Listen Now

Safeguarding Schools Inside-Out Instead of Outside-In

April 20 2019 by Karen Bossick,

Most schools adopt an adult-driven, control-driven, outside-in approach to secure schools. They rely on school resource officers, punitive policies and, often, metal detectors. That approach—keeping trouble out—may work at an airport or in a prison but not in schools, says Community Matters founder Rick Phillips.

Read the article

Bullying, Cyberbullying and Teen Suicide: Risks and Prevention Strategies

by William Grace Frost, former Director of Strategic Relations, Community Matters

Data recently published by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), indicates that suicide is now the #1 cause of death for 11-14 years olds in America.

The first time I heard this statistic, it nearly took my breath away. Then after the shock wore off, my next thoughts were, “It must be a mistake or a misprint. How is it possible that anyone so young could feel such despondency and hopelessness as to want to take their own life, and even worse, that suicide could rise to the top of the mortality tables for these young children?”

Research shows that suicide-related behaviors are caused by a myriad of factors, and are often not related to a single cause or incident. We also know that bullying/cyberbullying is one of the contributing factors in students turning to suicide as a “solution” to their problems. Even though the vast majority of youths involved in bullying/cyberbullying do not choose such a rash resolution, we know that it’s a contributing factor in many specific cases and that it increases a child’s risk of suicide contemplation.

The death of a Sonoma Valley, CA, teen who killed himself in 2015 after years of bullying is but one tragic example. The boy’s father said that his son had been a target of bullying since elementary school. By the time he reached high school, with classmates continuing to pick on him and encourage him to take his own life, it became too much for the boy to bear.

The National Crime Prevention Council has found that 43% of teens report being bullied on-line and 81% claim that it’s much easier to bully someone with the use of social media. Despite the best efforts of policymakers and educators, bullying/cyberbullying has become a national crisis affecting school children all across the U.S., regardless of the school’s demographics, and regardless if it’s rural or urban, public, private or charter.

Due in part to teens and pre-teens mostly-unfettered access to the internet and their prevalent use of social media, the bullying phenomenon has reached epidemic proportions.

To a large extent, cyber-aggression and face-to-face bullying in all its forms are:

disproportionately targeted at many of our most vulnerable populations including youth of color, students with disabilities, LGBTQ youth and those who are regularly exposed to violence, alcoholism or drug abuse at home or in their neighborhood;
filtering down into younger and younger grades due to increases in cell phone use;
becoming meaner because hurtful things written on-line often emboldens the aggressors with a perceived sense of anonymity;
more socially and emotionally damaging due to the fact that:
kids access social media 24/7, leaving no “safe harbor” for them at home or “recovery-time” for the ones being continuously tormented by cruel messages, and the accumulated stress leads some students to start looking for a “way out” of situations that seem hopeless;
young people’s underdeveloped frontal cortex’s do not provide the proper discernment needed to make good decisions about what they should and shouldn’t post on social media;
compromising photos, rumors or embarrassing incidents often get spread school-wide in nearly an instant, leading young children to think that their lives are no longer livable because “now everybody knows”.

Although researchers have yet to make the direct correlation between bullying/cyberbullying and suicide, we do know that the prevalence of both phenomena is on the rise, and that they have the potential of being very costly to students, families and schools, and to the insurance pools whose charge it is to mitigate the risks.
So how can we mitigate the risk of student suicides?

Creating safer schools is a relationship opportunity that needs a people solution. What’s needed is training, training, training – with the students to wake up the courage of bystanders and then equipping them with non-violent communication skills to effectively intervene and report when they see or hear incidents of bullying, cyberbullying, hazing, harassment or any other mean-spirited behavior – and with the adults who are uniquely positioned to provide valuable guidance, trust and insight for students’ conduct, both on campus and on-line.

At Community Matters, we know from years of practice and research that the most effective strategies empower young people to be part of the solution. This is done by engaging their empathy and providing the skills to safely intervene and support each other, instead of joining in the mistreatment or remaining passive bystanders. Enlisting students as part of the solution, whether on-line or in person, is a key determinant in improving school climate, and schools that focus on creating a safe and inclusive climate have been shown to have fewer incidents of all forms of mistreatment, including cyberbullying.

The simple fact is that when students look out for one another and feel confident and competent to speak up, everyone feels safer, relationships improve, bystanders become upstanders… and the number of risk-oriented incidents and associated costs are vastly reduced.

One example was reported to us recently by a teacher at a school in northern California:

“We recently had a pair of students have a very public Twitter posting “altercation” which led one of them to consider suicide and post cryptic messages concerning others on Twitter. Three of our students who had been trained in bullying prevention techniques intervened by supporting the victim, directing the attacker to stop what they were doing, and then getting help from an adult, just as they were trained to do.

Both our site principal and I received multiple messages from the [trained students] about this event and we were able to make contact with the students involved and intervene in time. The student is now getting support. This was a potentially dangerous situation that was stopped in its tracks because of the courageous and skillful actions taken by classmates.”

Positive outcomes such as this take place in middle and high schools all across the country where students have been empowered to find their voices on behalf of bully-targeted peers.

Another part of the equation is staff training. Training for school administrators and staff needs to be oriented towards developing trusting relationships with students. One of our credos at Community Matters for teacher-student relationships is “They won’t care what you know until they know that you care”. Teachers need to become “hall-friendly”, regularly taking the time to meet and greet students with words as simple as “Hi Bobby, great to see you today; I hope you have a good one.” Adult-driven relationships such as this help create a sense of belonging and connectedness, which research shows are the most important elements for student well-being.

Here are some other things we can do to support students in being both “cyber-safe” and “school connected”, and hence, less likely to become despondent, and potentially suicidal:

1. Staff members need to talk with their students about the realities of internet security, such as the fact that:

Nothing on the internet is ever truly anonymous;
Even though Snap Chat‘s postings “disappear”, people can, and do, take screenshots of their content before they “vanish”;
What gets posted to the web can negatively affect everything from their reputation, to their friendships, to future employment.

2. Let teens know that they can choose to protect their tweets; according to Twitter, they should know that:

People will have to specifically request to “follow” them; each follow request will also need approval; their tweets will only be visible to users they’ve approved and others will not be able to retweet or quote their Tweets;
They cannot share permanent links to their tweets with anyone other than their approved followers.

3. Some other good general rules about internet and social media for both adults and young people include:

Always use a strong password and use login verification;
Watch out for suspicious links, and always make sure you’re on the site you think you’re on before you enter your login information;
Never give your username and password out to untrusted third parties, especially those promising to get you followers, make you money or bring you notoriety;

4. Set up a Google alert for their name (adults can do this too) so that when any mention of their name comes up on Google, you know first. Information is still power. Let your student athletes know that many NCAA and NAIA sports teams are doing this as well.

5. Talk with them about appropriate online behavior before there’s a problem. Impress the importance of treating each other with kindness and respect, whether on-line or face-to-face.

6. “Think before you post” is a great general rule of thumb in coaching young people to minimize cyber meanness, insensitivity and thoughtlessness. Often just taking a deep breath or two and the reminder to “think about it and the possible harmful repercussions” prior to posting will decrease the potential hurtfulness. If they wouldn’t say it to the person’s face or out loud, they shouldn’t say it online.

Results of such trainings over the past 20 years have told us that we can reduce the risk factors for those youths who feel marginalized, helpless or hopeless due to the cruel and thoughtless behaviors of others, and consider that suicide is the only way out. Going forward we must continue to explore and monitor emerging research that helps us strengthen our practices in preventing students from wanting to end their lives, and we must never stop training everyone involved in education to be aware and skillful in inoculating our youth from the terrible epidemic of bullying/cyberbullying.

Most bullying happens away from adults. This Wisconsin school teaches kids to step in.

April 3, 2019 by Rory Linnane, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
(Photo: Tork Mason/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

Safe School Ambassadors at Adams-Friendship High School in Wisconsin are making a difference in the lives of their peers.

Read the article

Cyberbullying Prevention – Rick Phillips

February 26, 2019 – Public Risk Management Association (PRIMA) podcast

Community Matters founder Rick Phillips discusses the growing prevalance, causes and effects of cyberbullying on today’s youth with host Tiquan Gilbert of PRIMA.

Listen Now

Risk Factors & Solutions For Supporting LGBTQ Students

by De Palazzo, Statewide Safe Schools Director, Equality Florida

When I was a youth, there was nothing that would aggravate me more than watching someone being treated like a second class person—simply because they were different, whether that difference be pertaining to their size, weight, shoes, hair, belt, how they walked, how they talked, held themselves, or skin color and socio-economic status. In my Catholic school in the early 70’s there was plenty of mistreatment to be found in every corner of our small school building.

As we walk our planet in 2019 and beyond, those reading this blog know as well as I do that this is still taking place regularly in our classrooms, our school buildings, our hallways and our school restrooms. And further still in 2019, the mistreatment is fervent and regularly happening to our transgender, gender nonbinary, lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer students.

In my role as Equality Florida’s statewide Safe Schools Director for the last two years, I have been able to meet and work closely with school district upper level officials across Florida’s sunshine state in 62 of the state’s 67 school districts. I work to give them a much needed wakeup call pertaining to the needs, challenges and resiliency of our LGBTQ+ children in elementary through 12th grade, so that they will work toward both systematizing and structurally operationalizing LGBTQ “best practices” for every one of our students in each of their school districts whether their district be large and urban, medium-sized or rural and small.

I am happy to say, this has been working—but certainly not fast enough. And here’s why.

The most contemporary empirical research, as well as respected national and state surveys regarding at-risk behavior and resiliency for all youth, finds the risk factors for LGBTQ students to be sobering and stunningly escalated. GLSEN’s 2019 School Climate Survey found little improvement in safety, including discriminatory practices, lack of ability to use the appropriate restroom for transgender affirmed children, authentic identity and LGB and transgender students continual absence at school because of feeling unsafe or uncomfortable when in school.
Florida’s latest well respected “Youth Risk Behavior Survey” found that LGB students identified as 15-20% of school populations, with 3.6% of students identifying as transgender. That’s a large number of youth. Yet these Florida students were 4.5 times more likely to die by suicide than their non-LGB peers, and 57% feel sad and hopeless every day, so much so that they do not want to go to school. When I get the platform to speak with upper level leadership I work hard to step into their shoes. And, I remind them that 2019 queer youth, although this is getting a bit better, still regularly encounter tension or conflict at home because of their identity. A number of our places of worship still hold entrenched beliefs about LGBTQ children, and young people hear from the pulpit that it’s not okay to be who they authentically are. Still, in the United States, only 15-18% of school districts present any LGBTQ cultural competency professional development training to their upper level administrators, student services staff and front-line teachers, where gay students often turn first for a sense of belonging and support.

So, what can we do to ensure that this beautiful group of vulnerable, trauma-exposed, yet resilient young human beings stay in school, grow, thrive, have fun and graduate successfully to reach their utmost potential? We ensure state of the art, gold star “best practices” are structurally implemented and operationalized from the top down in our school districts, which extends to the executive level all the way to the hallways and lunchrooms of our multicultural and highly diverse school districts. This would include training for all staff, K-12, including our often forgotten but very student connected cafeteria service workers, bus drivers and aides, along with principals and teachers. Gay Straight Student Alliance Clubs should be supported, active and resourced in every districts’ middle and high schools, and safe space stickers, with safe space professional development being displayed and activated with fidelity and authenticity. These are just a few of the eight to ten critical components that provide an armor of support for this vulnerable and unique population of school children.

In closing, I pose to you that these are, in some ways “the best of times and the worst of times”, with LGBT people having the right to marry, and our young people now able to be out at school in a bolder and prouder manner in elementary, middle and high schools.
Yet, we have much work to do, and pushback across pockets of states from extremists is very real, very palpable and hateful to the point of taking one’s breath away when it is experienced by children. This is happening every day.

Recently, I was in the presence of the Chief Director of Student Services for the State of Florida, Monica Verra Tirado. She said “For every child who has found their voice and is an advocate and “high flyer” for themselves…what about the children that aren’t? It is OUR job to do this for them.”

Thank you in advance for standing on the shoulders of so many others who have always taken care of our most vulnerable children, of whatever background, culture or identity, so that every single one of our LGBTQ children and young adults will continue to be and remain “HIGH FLYERS,” soaring healthily and brightly in 2019 and beyond.

De Palazzo is the Statewide Safe Schools Director for Equality Florida, and was a Community Matters Safe School Ambassadors® Senior Trainer from 2005 – 2016.


Peer Pressure and Peer Intervention – One Voice Can Make the Difference

by Lyndsey Burcina, Curriculum Developer & Program Coordinator, Metta Center for Nonviolence

Teen addiction rates are on the rise, and the cause can often be linked to the need for peer acceptance. Every day, youth between the ages of 11 to 18 are pressured by their peers to try something new. It used to be just alcohol and marijuana, but recently cocaine, LSD, and opioids have become more easily accessible to kids.

My experience with peer pressure and substance abuse is probably one of the most common. The summer before seventh grade I was hanging out with some friends from school. We were watching a movie in the garage when one of the boys pulled a joint out of his pocket. As the kids passed the joint around, I refused it twice until they started calling me a stuck-up wimp. They said I was too scared or too much of a goodie-goodie to smoke, so I gave in because I wanted to prove them wrong. I’m not sure why being a “good kid” bothered me so much, but it did, and people using that against me made me feel bad. For many, marijuana is a gateway drug. After that night, I knew that the only way to avoid the feeling of being different or isolated from the rest of the group was to force myself to do things I didn’t want to because that’s what the “cool kids” were doing. Soon I was drinking and smoking my way through seventh grade at concerts, parties, and the occasional school ditch day. That was the extent of my substance abuse until I turned 14 and someone brought cocaine to a sleepover. Coke was something I had only seen in movies or tv shows, so the fact that it was sitting in front of me felt strange. Two girls snorted the coke and asked me if I wanted any. My first response was no, but the girls started chanting “do it, do it, do it,” until I finally relented. I was hooked after my first try. For two and a half years my “friends” were feeding my addiction 3-5 times a day.

My rock bottom arrived in April of 2016. I had been hospitalized for multiple overdoses, had become dangerously anorexic, and burned a hole in the upper section of my septum. Having phased out of the “bad kids” group, I formed positive relationships with students in my restorative justice class. On April 22, 2016, they sat me down to express their concerns. They told me that they couldn’t sit by and watch me kill myself and that I was too special to lose. I denied having a problem for about an hour until it finally clicked how much I had hurt the people I loved most so I said okay. As hard as it was, I reluctantly but voluntarily went into treatment on May 2, 2016. I stayed there working a program with 12 other girls for 90 days, and for 90 days my friends, teachers, and family called me to tell me they were rooting for me. They helped me work on my self-confidence and become the Lyndsey I was meant to be. I have been sober since May 2, 2016 and if it were not for my peers holding a makeshift intervention, I probably would not be here today.

From my perspective on peer pressure, it takes multiple people and multiple comments to convince someone to do something they don’t want to do, but it takes only one person and one voice to speak up and point out that it’s wrong. It takes only one person to say “you don’t have to do it”, and to change someone’s mind. That voice could be what stands between a life full of love and opportunities and a life surrounded by jails, institutions and death. These are trying times for our youth. You can buy drugs and alcohol as easy as you can buy candy, so it is crucial that we not only make sure that our kids know that it’s okay to say no, but that they have the tools to speak up for themselves or someone else. We need to come together to support younger generations and let them know that it’s okay to resist doing something they aren’t comfortable with. This support and these skills save lives, just like my friends saved mine.

Lyndsey Burcina is a certified Restorative Practices trainer, speaker and radio show host, and is the Curriculum Developer & Program Coordinator with the Metta Center for Nonviolence in Petaluma, CA, building restorative justice and nonviolence curricula for youth and adults in Sonoma County schools. She served as a Safe School Ambassador beginning in 6th grade and throughout her middle and high school years.