Armed with practical tips for resolving conflicts, the students in Urbana Middle School’s Safe School Ambassadors program are always ready to avert trouble.
When they see a student sitting alone at lunch, they join in. When someone is being left out of a discussion, they get them involved.
And when a student is badgering a classmate with hurtful comments, they are always ready to provide a distraction, break the tension and prevent a potential bullying incident.
“We try to prevent exclusion, that is a really big thing,” said Maddie Harrington, one of the seventh-graders in the program.
Last year, she and her friend, Claire Fisher, who is also in the program, said they noticed a shy girl who was having trouble making friends and talking to other students. Concerned that she might feel lonely, Harrington and Fisher befriended her and made sure she got involved in everything they were doing.
It took a while, but eventually they got her to open up, Fisher said.
“Now she is even talking to all the sixth-graders,” Harrington said.
The Safe School Ambassadors is a special anti-bullying initiative that aims to change school climate from the inside out. It equips students with the skills and knowledge necessary to prevent conflict, said Leslie Pearre, the school’s literacy specialist, who oversees the program.
Administered by Community Matters, a nonprofit organization based in Sonoma County, Calif., the program is only available at Urbana Middle School, although other schools in Frederick County have also expressed interest in participating, Pearre said.
The program is being used at 1,000 schools in 32 states, Canada, Guam and Puerto Rico, according to the Community Matters website.
But it is not often seen in school systems on the East Coast, Pearre said.
When the program started three years ago, Urbana Middle and River Hill High School in Howard County were the only two schools on the East Coast to participate, she said.
Pearre discovered the program and was able to get it started by securing a grant from the Center for Dispute Resolution at the Maryland University School of Law.
The program has been recognized for its success in decreasing bullying and harassment incidents, improving student attendance, enhancing the relationships among students and helping students to cultivate respect for diversity, according to the Community Matters website.
Due to the positive attention generated by the program, Gov. Martin O’Malley visited Urbana Middle last year to learn more about the program.
The program also got some more attention earlier this year after an alleged bullying incident at Brunswick High School was captured on a TV news camera and was broadcast on numerous media outlets, including Yahoo News, ABC2, Gawker, Huffington Post and YouTube.
The incident involved sophomore Preston Deener, who had been suspended from school after starting a fight in gym class. Deener told school officials he fought back after being bullied.
Deener was being interviewed about the suspension by a WHAG TV news crew on Oct. 8, when he was approached by three students, one of whom pushed him and hit him on the head, according to WHAG TV reporter Katie Kyros. Kyros could not shoot the attack but got footage of Deener as he ran from one of the boys.
The incident led the Frederick County Board of Education to revisit the way schools handle bullying incidents. As part of their presentation to the school board on Oct. 24, school system staff members brought students and staff from Urbana Middle to talk about the program.
The goal of the Safe Schools Ambassadors initiative is to empower students and teach them how they can help create a positive atmosphere at their school, Pearre said.
Currently, more than 150 students from sixth, seventh and eighth grade participate in the Safe School Ambassadors initiative, she said.
Participating students were picked by staff members and teachers based on specific criteria, including those who stand out as leaders, have influence over their peers, good communication skills and a history of standing up for their friends, Pearre said.
The students work closely with adult mentors, who are staff members interested in the program. They all participate in a two-day interactive workshop that uses skits and videos to teach them acceptable ways to resolve conflict, defuse incidents and support students who are being isolated or excluded, Pearre said.
The students then continue to meet with their mentors throughout the year, as they continue to hone their conflict-resolution skills, she said.
The program at Urbana Middle complements other bullying-prevention initiatives, such as the Positive Behavior Intervention System, Character Counts and the state-recommended Olweus Bullying Prevention Model, a research-based program that trains teachers in effective ways to curb bullying inside and outside the classroom, Pearre said.
But the Safe School Ambassadors program is different because it gives the power to stop bullying to students, she said.
So far, the three-year program has been highly successful, Pearre said.
The number of reported incidents at the school has gone down, from five in 2008-09 to zero in 2011-12, according to school system statistics.
Principal Gwendolyn Dorsey said the school had three incidents by the time she and Pearre presented the program to the school board last month.
“It simply means that the kids are more willing to report it,” Dorsey said.
The program has also helped school officials to delve deeper into the specifics of incidents to find out whether they were physical fights or just name-calling, or where the problems tend to happen the most.
As a result, the staff discovered that problems tend to be emotional rather than physical and occur in hallway nooks instead of in the school cafeteria.
“It was not necessarily physical,” Pearre said.
Students involved in the program have also helped teachers keep up with problems that can occur off of school property, such as teasing that happens on Facework or other social networking sites.
Funding to run out
It cost the school $11,800 to implement the program, with much of the money having to be in place in the first year, Pearre said.
Most of it paid for accessing the Community Matters services, getting training and guest speakers for the program, she said.
Although the grant expires this year, Pearre believes that the school will be able to continue the program in the future and support any cost through fundraising.
“The program is extremely well-supported,” Pearre said. “This year, the focus of the grant is on helping kids understand that they are a part of something bigger, a part of the community.”
When she first found the program three years ago, Pearre said she was just looking for an initiative that would supplement the other programs at the school. The Safe School Ambassadors was a perfect match because it focused on students and gave them valuable skills for life, she said.
“We don’t want them to back away from a conflict,” she said. “What we want is for them to be able to resolve it in a positive way.”
Students who have been involved in the program say that its interactive nature makes it really easy to practice their conflict-resolution skills.
And they believe that after three years their work is paying off.
“I have seen less bullying,” Harrington said. “I believe that students now are more welcoming.”
“You are able to get more help,” she said referring to the mentors assigned to work with students. “They try to help you and teach you so you can help others.”