2008-03-27 / Community

Student ambassadors train against school violence

Part 2 of three parts
By Sophia Fischer sfischer@theacorn.com

Defusing a dangerous situation on campus takes skill.

About 100 students and staff from Oak Park High School and Medea Creek Middle School recently underwent two days of intensive training at Oak Park Community Center, training that was part of the school district's efforts to prevent the kind of violence seen in schools nationwide, from shootings and beatings to psychological harassment and bullying.

Through a program called Safe School Ambassadors administered by Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Community Matters, teens and adults were shown ways to safely defuse potentially dangerous situations.

"They are learning how to not be a bystander when they see harsh, negative things going on around them," said Oak Park High School counselor Randy McLelland.

The training session was dedicated to Lawrence King, the Oxnard junior high school boy who last month was shot and killed, allegedly by a classmate, purportedly for admitting he was gay.

The Oak Park ambassadors, who maintain anonymity for safety reasons, wrote their comments on a poster in memory of the 15-year-old victim:

"Lawrence, what happened to you is extremely unfair. Everyone deserves a chance in life no matter what sex, religion, sexual preference, anything. Your story will teach many people to be better people."

And, "You are told to forgive and forget but the reality is you don't do either."

It was the first time such a training session had been dedicated, said Tisha Marina, the program trainer. She felt the Oxnard boy's death underscored the importance of the ambassador program.

"In almost every recent school shooting many of the students knew what was going to happen, and nobody said anything," she said.

Marina wants students to realize they are not helpless.

Meeting the challenge

"It's not easy to stand up in front of others, but you have choices in life," she said. Marina is cognizant of the challenges of being a teenager.

"As a young person you're struggling to understand the world, who you are, your changing body; your hormones are going crazy- and you have to learn to get along with each other? In school you learn how to give a speech, but you're not required to take a class in how to get along with each other. You're expected to know how to do that. That's a life learning process."

The first day of Oak Park's training was typical, Marina said. Students, even teachers, remained in their social circles. On the second day the teens and adults sat together.

"One boy walked in yesterday who couldn't really care less about this program. The first thing he said the second day was that he went to his brother's school and noticed things going on that he'd never noticed before because his eyes weren't open to them. Now he wants to be an agent for change," Marina said.

Building trust

The first goal was community building among students in order to engender trust. Ambassadors broke up into small groups to share their experiences, whether as victims, witnesses or aggressors.

"I saw a kid litter and yelled at him, but I went too far. His friends and my friends started yelling at each other. Now, when I see this kid walk past me at school I feel bad. I want to apologize but haven't. I will tomorrow," a student said.

Role of 'bystanders'

Students identified many forms of mistreatment experienced at school, including exclusion, put-downs, bullying, unwanted physical contact and destructive acts against campuses. They identified the players- the aggressors, targets and bystanders.

"Being a bystander is a huge one they've never clicked with before. They think they're not involved by being a bystander, but they are- 90 percent of the school population are bystanders," Marina said.

Students described a variety of on-campus incidents they had witnessed, acts that ranged from sexual and physical harassment to verbal and written bullying. They role-played to understand how it felt to be "in someone else's shoes," Marina said. Some of the comments she related:

"I saw a group of girls who cussed out a teacher who was right there."

"I have seen people blatantly shun people telling them to get the 'eff' away."

"Nazi signs on the walls in the bathroom."

"I saw an older student go up to a freshman and say, 'Give me your money.'"

"I saw a girl sexually harassed outside a classroom after school. Two guys were hugging her and started putting their hands in unwanted places."

"Someone wrote 'fag' on three of my notebooks three separate times throughout the year."

"Throwing food at kids because they won't do anything back."

Marina addressed the ambassadors' role: Noticing what's going on around them, thinking about what options they have while always ensuring their own safety. Using tools learned in training and following through to make sure the "target" is okay and the bullying does not continue.

If a weapon is involved, a witness should remain inconspicuous while locating an adult on campus they feel they can trust, and avoiding putting themselves in danger.

Using the group dynamic

"Instead of me coming in and giving them rules, together as a group we decide what works," Marina said.

She is always surprised by the similarities in students she trains, no matter what community she is working in. "The most common thing is the misuse of the word 'gay.' Kids say those shoes are 'so gay,' that tree is 'so gay,' everything is 'so gay.' This has to be addressed because young people are losing their lives over misunderstandings and miscommunications," Marina said. "Children should not be dying in school."

Trainers meet for an annual retreat to discuss their experiences and update each other. With websites such as MySpace and Facebook becoming important social outlets for students, future training should incorporate ways for ambassadors to handle negative situations online, Marina said.

"We have two days to reprogram 14 years of thinking. It's not going to happen overnight. This is the first step," Marina said.

Next week: Part 3, a look at the effectiveness of such workshops and what to expect in the future.

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