The walls of room 204 in the Stoughton Area School District’s administrative building are lined with hundreds of colorful sticky notes – “Someone poured chocolate milk inside my fleece jacket,” or “Mr. Johnson, I don’t want her in my group,” the notes read.
The sticky notes describe real situations students at River Bluff Middle School have witnessed or experienced.
Adjacent to the sticky notes are handwritten posters explaining the result of such behavior, the “Costs of mistreatment: suicidal thoughts, depression, not wanting to come to school.”
The roughly 40 students in this room are being trained as safe school ambassadors as part of a nationwide program to empower students to stick up for their peers. They are given six skills to help support the target and discourage the aggressor.
The six skills are: Balancing, supporting, reasoning, distracting, active listening and getting help. Some skills are intuitive like distracting- this is meant to draw attention away from the act of mistreatment. Other skills take practice, like active listening which helps students respond to a person’s feelings.
During the initial training, after students write about peer mistreatment they have witnessed or experienced on those post-it notes, they role play — aggressor, target and ambassador. Students act out real scenarios and use one of the six skills to deescalate the situation.
The focal point of the initial training is to give students the tools to act in the moment they witness peer mistreatment, John Linney, a trainer for Community Matters, Safe School Ambassadors program, told the Hub. They don’t have to make an appointment with a counselor but rather de-escalate the drama immediately.
Since 2018, 43 students have been trained in the Stoughton program, and it continues to grow. Forty-seven students at Fox Prairie Elementary had the training at the beginning of November, 43 students from Sandhill Elementary School had the training on Nov. 21 and 22 and River Bluff Middle School had a second round of training Nov. 19 and 20.
“Why take the time to make someone else feel bad?” Cadi Jemilo, a veteran ambassador at RBMS asked rhetorically during a program meeting.
A Dane County Youth Assessment survey conducted in 2018 for Stoughton Area School District, confirmed more than 70% of students at RBMS have witnessed a bullying incident during the school year, and 33% of students reported being made fun of in the past 30 days. Suicidal thoughts were reported by 21.7% of middle schoolers in the past 12 months.
This information pushed Anne Fimreite, counselor at RBMS and organizer of the anti-bully ambassador program, to apply for several grants to get funding for the Safe School Ambassador program.
Ambassadors are trained to stop peer mistreatment in the moment with six essential skills that allows them to intervene when they see incidents happen. The students are nominated by educators and go through a 16-hour training.
Stoughton Wellness Coalition granted RBMS a three year, $6,500 grant, and the Wisconsin Department of Public instruction issued grants for the elementary schools.
After the initial training, students meet twice per month with one of nine adults who are considered “family group facilitators” who have also gone through the training. They work on projects like putting posters around the school and creating videos to show other students how to be ambassadors. Students also write about situations when they’ve intervened- this is meant to help students self reflect and track incidents going on in the school.
“We need to use students more to help with school safety and the school environment,” Fimreite wrote to the Hub in an email. “They can be a part of the solution. Students and adults can work together so that everyone feels welcomed, included and safe.”
Changing the norms
At a meeting in October, students drew posters with sayings like “blowing out someone else’s candle doesn’t make yours shine any brighter” or “Be kind, words don’t rewind.”
The goal is for these ambassadors to influence their circle of friends to stop peer mistreatment. Linney said the program is not for the “good kids,” but rather kids who have the most influence and the most social capital to change the norms of bullying from being “funny or cool,” to unacceptable.
Elsa Jones said she once witnessed a bully throw a peer’s school supplies in the trash. Jones said after the student dug their supplies out of the garbage, she was “really upset.”
“So I just confronted (the aggressor) and said, ‘Stop,’” Jones said.
That is all is takes sometimes, Jones said, to let the aggressor know their actions are not cool or funny.
Fimreite said students have a pulse on what is going on in the hallways and they are able to talk to their peers in a way adults can not, so it is important to have an inward out approach to stopping peer mistreatment.
“Students set the tone and the social norms in the school,” she said.
Students are always encouraged to get help from an adult when the situations are more involved, complicated or dangerous, such as fights, threats or suicidal thoughts.
Ambassadors said they feel they are making a difference and that they don’t do this for accolades, but rather to make their school a safe space for everyone.
At the end of the training on Nov. 20, Linney, told students they can influence the actions of others and make their school welcoming for everyone.
“Heroes are not big people with capes, heroes are people who look like you,” he said. “People who help out every day.”