now has ambassadors who keep the peace much the way ambassadors to overseas countries are tasked to do.
And, like their counterparts in the U.S. diplomatic corps, these kids are supposed to build bridges between different groups of people.
Teachers and staff selected 41 kids deemed influential in various cliques and social groups to serve as "safe schools ambassadors" in a new effort by the to diffuse bullying among students.
At their first training last week in the middle school libary, the group seemed to represent a cross-section of middle school life: jocks and bookworms, talkative boys and fashionable girls, class scholars and cut-ups.
Throughout the day, they learned how to talk to each other, care for each other and stand up for each other when needed, no matter what the clique.
Early in the day, the students named all the ways they've seen kids bully each other: shoving each other into lockers, putting each other down with rude jokes, punching, excluding the unpopular, and spreading disparaging lies about each other. The list made middle school life sound miserable.
But, by day’s end, these 41 kids gathered eagerly and spontaneously into a "group hug" suggested by one student from the training. As they huddled together, arms around each others' shoulders, it was possible to imagine a school environment free of bullying or mean-spirited jibes.
The Safe School Ambassadors training program is organized by the non-profit Community Matters Inc.
"Students have the power to influence each other in ways that adults cannot," explained Helen Purdue, a trainer with Community Matters, who led the session that day and is a former teacher.
"It's about empowering the bystander students to notice mistreatment, and intervene and redirect" what kids are talking about or doing, she said. "It’s about helping the school climate by giving students the tools to support each other."
The training is one of many ways the district is working to diffuse bullying and bring children together. In the elementary schools it has launched the . Earlier this month it held an for parents and students of all ages.
"This program is empowering kids. It is not teacher-directed," said Deborah Brill, a former middle school teacher who, this year, has been organizing conflict management and anti-bullying programs in each of the district’s schools.
Community Matters’ Safe School Ambassadors program is used in 900 schools around the country, according to Purdue.
Robin Davis, principal of Albany Middle School, called it "a great program."
"I think it’ll certainly empower the kids," she said. "I was impressed with how they worked together, supporting each other."
Davis said she is glad the district "has been proactive" to stop bullying and "taken the challenge seriously."
It’s not that there is more bullying than there used to be, Davis said. Rather, it's that bullying is more potent, and its effects spread more quickly, because of social media and hand-held electronics.
"It is a different world now with social media. It used to be kids would pass notes to each other, one person at a time. Now someone writes a note and, with one click, sends it to 150 of their closest friends." Davis said. That means gossip and put-downs become public fast.
The new ambassadors trained last Friday, March 10, at Albany Middle School, and made promises of how they will fulfill their charges as ambassadors.
"As an ambassador I will save at least two-and-a-half kids from being put down each day," said one boy.
"As an ambassador, I will make change," said another.
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