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Changing ‘bystanders’ and using ‘popular’ kids could derail bullying in District 300

One first things student sees as he or she enters District 300 school is posters reminding them respect property learning

One of the first things a student sees as he or she enters a District 300 school is posters reminding them to respect property, learning conditions, other people and themselves. | Dave Gathman/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 14, 2013 6:06AM

CARPENTERSVILLE — Eleven sixth-graders sat in the library of Lakewood School, writing anonymous messages on colored Post-It Notes that a few days later they would paste onto the locker doors of random classmates up and down the halls.

Another example of cruelty and bullying? No, these were positive, feel-good messages. The Post-Its contained encouragements such as “Don’t let what is not true get to you.” “Dare to be rare.” “You’re the reason why someone smiles today.” “Smile and let the world wonder why.” And “I believe you can make it in the world.”

Community Unit School District 300’s anonymous Safe School Ambassadors were about to strike again.


Teachers in District 300 think they have found a key to stopping bullying in all its forms, from nasty talk to physical beatings: Train kids how to change from “bystanders” into defusers when they see someone else being persecuted. And mobilize the “popular” kids — the kids others look up to and respect — to change the school’s culture and preach a more cooperative, loving way of life.

This double-barreled “Safe School Ambassadors” program was begun in 2000 by an organization called Community Matters, and it already is used by 1,200 schools across the U.S. and Canada. But it reached the Fox Valley when District 300 decided to experiment by having three schools form Safe School Ambassadors clubs in August.

The pilot project began at Lakewood (a fifth- and sixth-grade hybrid building in Carpentersville), at Carpentersville Middle School in Carpentersville, and at Westfield Community School (which includes both elementary and middle-school grades) in Algonquin.

Associate District 300 Superintendent Sarah Kedroski said the Ambassadors and another experimental program aimed at all students called Second STEP will try to ”change the social norms” in a school so bullying in any of its forms becomes unacceptable in each student’s mind.

“We can check for weapons at the door. But we can’t check the students’ social and emotional life,” Kedroski said.

At Lakewood, for example, Assistant Principal Joshua Perdomo said that this year the first class period every Monday is devoted to 40 minutes of the Second STEP training. He said Perry Elementary School in Carpentersville also started the STEP training last year.

“STEP trains the kids to ask in any situation ‘How does she feel?’ and “How can I help?’” Perdomo said.

Colorful posters hung in the Lakewood hallways remind students of the STEP steps when a conflict comes up — (S) Say the problem; (T) Think of solutions; (E) Explore consequences (what would happen if the people involved did so and so?); and (P) Pick the best solution.

The 85 percent

Kedroski said STEP-style programs ideally would show each student how to handle bullying and fighting. But one problem, she said, is that 85 percent of the children on the scene at any bullying or fighting incident are neither aggressors nor victims. They are “bystanders,” who watch and listen but do nothing to stop what’s going on.

Why? Kedroski said surveys show that is because the bystanders fear retribution from the offender, don’t know what to do, are afraid they will just make the situation worse, worry about losing social status if they become involved, or think it’s up to grown-ups to stop what’s going on.

So that’s where the new Ambassadors come in.

Assistant principals at CMS, Lakewood and Westfield recruited 35 students in each school who could be trained and motivated to change from bystander to problem-solver whenever they witness bullying.

Lakewood Principal Asia Gurney said the three schools’ staffs asked every student in the school, “Which students do you look up to?” The organizers then invited the students whose names showed up most often to become Ambassadors, based on their ”social position” and personalities.

She said the idea is that when these natural student leaders “step up and tell others that bullying is unacceptable, that could be powerful.”

Perdomo said that in September, the Ambassadors went through two days of training in how to defuse a crisis. The techniques they were taught included distracting the bully, physically separating him or her from the target, asking the bully how he or she would feel being on the receiving end of that kind of treatment, and being supportive to the victim.

Jennifer Schwardt, assistant principal at Westfield, said the ambassadors were divided into “family groups” of one or two teachers plus six to 12 students each. They meet once a week to deepen their skills and “debrief” each other about their experiences.

Every time they see some case of unwanted physical contact or psychological persecution, they record in a journal what happened and what role they played. It was during a meeting of one of those family groups last week that the 11 Lakewood students, led by health teacher Erin Blair, found themselves posting encouraging Post-It Notes on other students’ lockers.

Low profile

Perdomo said the Ambassadors like to keep a low profile and keep their participation in the program semi-secret to avoid losing credibility when they go into action.

“We don’t want other kids to think they’re going to be telling the administration on the others and getting them in trouble, because they’re not,” he said. “They’re helping the people involved.”

One Westfield Ambassador who helped explain the program to the District 300 Board of Education last week said Ambassadors have “looking glass” exercises in which they act out a conflict scenario and each student has to decide whether they were behaving in a situation as an aggressor, as a victim or as a bystander.

“Before our training, I thought shoving people into lockers was perfectly normal,” another female Ambassador from Westfield admitted during the school board presentation. She said she now realizes that everything from such shoving to merely gossiping all are forms of cruelty.

Every morning, the public-address announcements at Westfield include an anti-bullying message. And during each Wednesday in October, Westfield students were encouraged to wear orange, the nationwide bullying-awareness color.

Ambassadors also hung anti-bullying posters in the Westfield library, such as “Make someone feel noticed” and “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Trusting leaders

CMS Assistant Principal D.J. Carlon said that, recruited for their natural leadership and communication skills, the kids sought as Ambassadors are not necessarily top grade-earners or even “angels” when it comes to past behavior of their own. Carlon said one CMS student had 27 discipline issues on her record. But she was recruited for the Ambassadors because it was clear that other students looked up to her, and now she’s an active member of the CMS Ambassadors.

“Some teachers said, ‘These students had some behavioral problems.’ But we said, ‘They are leaders in their own realm, so let’s trust them,’ ” Perdomo said.

“A couple of the students have done a 180 in their behavior,” Perdomo said. “Sometimes students are just looking for a way to excel, just trying to find an outlet.”

In one exercise, the Ambassadors realize they almost all have experienced situations in which they were bullies themselves as well as victims and bystanders.

“Before Safe School Ambassadors, I was a bystander. But now I’m the one who stands up for the target,” one male Ambassador from Carpentersville Middle School told the bystander.

When one of the sixth-grade Ambassadors was pressed during an interview for this story to recall times when he was bullied himself, he suddenly burst into tears and said, “They say I’m gay but I’m not!” But now, Perdomo says, this boy knows how to stand up for other kids being unfairly persecuted.

More schools?

After school board members were briefed about the project, they expressed admiration for its approach.

Board member Steve Fiorentino said that while listening to the students who spoke, “The word that came to my mind is ‘courageous.’ ”

“This is absolutely awesome,” said board member Sue Kopacz. “I am touched by your sincerity, and I hope we get this program into all our schools.”

“I’d like to see this start on the high-school level, too, and be used at all of our schools,” said board President Anne Miller.

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