Innovative New Junior High School Program Targets Bullying

At last week’s school board meeting, Davis Joint Unified School District Climate Coordinator Mel Lewis discussed the innovative new program that is being piloted at the Junior High School level–the safe school ambassador program.

A partial grant in the spring of 2007 was used to implement this program at Holmes Junior High School. This was a one-time grant for the training and it is only at Holmes. Mel Lewis recommended it to the district for the use at all junior high schools.

This was an idea that Board Member Keltie Jones had picked up from the CSBA meetings.

“This actually one of the things that I got most excited about at CSBA and got on an email list and got an email about this grant and forwarded it to the district office and that’s what got this going. This program was developed by someone in Santa Rosa… And it was developed in response to Columbine where he is a psychologist and an educator and really started examining why those kinds of things happen and how can we really effectively prevent the kind of abuse that our students go through daily in the hallways…

It’s kind of nice, because at this point we are really benefiting from many years of what works at other schools and what works at other environments. And also I liked it because its individualized where each school, each community can kind of make it their own with families of teachers who are willing to be on board. So I’m very very excited that you’re doing this work. And my own daughter at Holmes has noticed the changes as well.”

The cost of this program was around $3900 for one-time training. Some of the follow-up training they can provide on their own. Certainly an affordable program that can have good benefits to the student culture. This is a program that is designed for grades 4 to 12.

A teacher and two ambassadors came to the meeting to give a presentation on the safe school ambassador program.

They had a training in March at the teen center–intensive training for two days. As the teacher explained, “What’s really good about this program as opposed to others, I feel, is that we’re dealing with students who are the first on the scene, who can react much quicker than teachers can, because we hear it from them if they tell us, and they are the ones that can quietly deal with the situations that arise on our campus.”

They selected forty students with “social capital” in their peer groups, it is not just the straight A student or the perfect student, but rather students who have actual influence within their peer groups that have been selected. It is a broad cross-section of all groups. Five teachers have volunteered to participate–family leaders–who meet with eight students every few weeks to discuss any interventions that they have had with students. Each of the teachers have committed to be involved for two years in this program (if funding is enabled to continue).

There will be a follow-up training in the fall where the newly arriving seventh grade students will receive training to replace those who are ninth graders.

As the teacher made clear,

“This is not something where if there is a serious situation that a student had to deal with, they are not going to deal with it on their own. They know there are certain lines that they can get to and then they need to go for help. They can go to the family members, they can go to the counselors… They are not the undercover cops that can kind of deal with everything, they know when they get to the line and they need to pass it on.”

Two students came forward to talk about their experiences. They work behind the scenes within their own groups to help stop bullying. For example, if they see a friend put down someone else, they intervene and try to tell the student it is not the best thing to do and they also help comfort the victim.

The big thing about the program is that students are there where the teachers cannot be. They see what the teachers cannot see and can be involved in that capacity.

One of the students witnessed for example an incident where one kid pushed another kid off his bike. One of the ambassadors confronted the kid to ask why he had done this, while the other ambassador made sure the kid who was pushed off his bike was okay.

The female student described typical types of interventions:

“Most of what we do also is just like put-downs like ‘oh that’s so gay,’ ‘you’re so stupid,’ ‘what type of dress is that oh my gosh,’ so what we usually do in those type of circumstances, talk about what we did last night, like that really good movie so that they stop thinking about it or talk about what that person might have that is good. But if it’s something like ‘that’s so good’ or something like that, we tell them that that’s not right, you shouldn’t say that, that’s…”

Board Member Provenza asked:

“Do you find that effective in changing the way students are relating to each other?”

The male student responded,

“My view really changed after I went to that ambassador training. And when I went to that ambassador training, I realized how wrong that was.”

The other student added that most of their friends have stopped using those kinds of words around them and she hoped that would change their habits in general and that would carry over to their other conversations as well to change the school.

Another component of the effectiveness of this program is that it is not a situation where the students are in uniforms and designated as authority figures. In fact, they have not told the other students about this program and instead are trying to work behind the scenes to change the culture of the school from the inside.

“I really do think that students, obviously they do have a lot more pull with their peer groups than teachers do. We’re there to educate, we’re there to be positive role models, but as far as interacting with each other, one we don’t see it all and the students do and they can really do the on-spot corrections… These discussions between themselves can have a huge impact.”

They have also had less than positive responses to their interventions, but the support group is in place that they can bring it back to their “family” and discuss better ways that they could approach a certain situation.

As Mel Lewis suggested:

“I like it because its relevant to what the kids are dealing with now. It’s not a package program that just stays in an old binder, it really comes to relevancy of what the students are dealing with.”

There were concerns raised that many of the Columbine type situations, and the most recent one at Virginia Tech are perpetrated by loners, who are not in any social groups.

As Tim Taylor said,

“I agree with that approach [finding leaders of the subgroups], that approach is easier said than done, so to the extent that they are accomplishing it, that’s a pretty big thing to find the subgroups and all this who are out there. What it doesn’t catch though is the individual, if you think of some of these incidents that have been so prominent in the news, and those are individuals that don’t identify with any group.”

Mel Lewis however suggested that one of their duties is to try to reach out to these type of students and hang out with students who seem to not have friends. They go and sit with them, and they have lunch with the students who do not necessarily eat with anyone else.

Tim Taylor agreed that was a good approach.

Will this program ultimately succeed? It is hard to say for sure, but there are several promising aspects of it. First, it works within the peer social structure. One key question is whether the knowledge of the existence of this program will work to undermine it, however, by working within that social network, it has a chance to succeed.

Second, it is not a police program, rather it aims to change the interactions of students through positive peer pressure.

Third and most importantly, we know from social psychological research that bystanders rarely intervene. In fact, there have been numerous studies on crowd’s failure to intervene when a woman was attacked to the failure of people to prevent atrocities in Zimbardo’s study on prisons. What this type of program does is empower bystanders to intervene. It gives them the tools to do so. The social support to do so. And more importantly, it raises the awareness that they need to do so, which would seem to be so vital.

In fact, one of the questions they had during their training at the conclusion was what would they change when they got back into campus.

According to the teacher, many of the students said, “I’m not going to be a bystander, so that was a powerful message because they are teens, they would view something that was happening and they would look the other way. They said they wouldn’t be a bystander, and I think our ambassadors are proving that.”

This program seems to hold some promise to help with situations of harassment and bullying that have been burning issues for a long time. It is not going to solve all of the problems, but it seems to be a powerful tool that can help.

For more information on this program, please click here.

—Doug Paul Davis reporting


  • David Greenwald

    Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.



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