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Tuesday, Mar 12 2013 12:00 AM

Waking up courage

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Group leader Brittany Roach and 40 other Safe School Ambassadors during the training. Photo courtesy of Wade Barrett

Angeles Gracian, Brittany Roach, Julia Pool, Oscar Bejar, Wade Barrett (SSA Coordinator) Photo courtesy of Wade Barrett

Julia Pool, Oscar Bejar, Angeles Gracian, Brittany Roach, Austin Miller (in front of large screen with UpStander logo) Photo courtesy of Wade Barrett

THS students receive  anti-mistreatment training

Like U.S. ambassadors to overseas countries are tasked to keep the peace, more than three dozen Tehachapi High School students have been selected to build bridges between different social groups on campus.

Selected to represent various social groups, the students received special training on conflict resolution and bullying last week at Monroe High School.

The in-depth training was the third in a series of events that kicked off the Safe School Ambassadors' "Waking up Courage" campaign, which began on Monday in Tehachapi with an all-school assembly, staff development meeting and a parent community gathering that evening.

Funded in part by a $74,000 grant from the State Farm Youth Advisory Board under the auspices of the Kern County Superintendent of Schools and developed by Community Matters in California, the anti-mistreatment program provides a unique approach to making school campuses more inviting for all students.

Up until now, students had only two options when witnessing classmates being mistreated -- do nothing or say nothing, or become a "snitch."

But not anymore, as student ambassadors learned they have other options to intervene with friends and classmates when they see teasing, bullying or any behavior that involves their peers mistreating each other.

What students learned

Students were first taught the four basic parts of the SAA program: notice, think, act and follow through. Then the intervention steps: balancing, support, reasoning, distracting, directing and if needed -- getting help.

But the training doesn't end there and following last week's session and throughout the entire campaign, students will continue to develop ways to talk to each other, care for each other and stand up for each other when needed.

"Students have the power to influence each other in ways that adults cannot," explained Shay Olivarria, a trainer with Community Matters.

"It's about teaching bystander students to notice mistreatment and intervene, then redirect what kids are talking about or doing," she said. "It's about improving the school environment by giving students the tools to support each other."

It's that philosophy that is perhaps the cornerstone of the program, which emphasizes that ambassadors must first be good citizens and then to lead by example.

"This program is empowering kids with very little intervention by adults, unless it's an issue dealing with unwanted physical contact," said Wade Barrett, district psychologist, who has been in charge of the program since 2010 when it was first introduced to Tehachapi students.

However, ambassadors are not left alone. There is plenty of support from their group families, which meet every other week with an adult advisor to discuss what works and what hasn't worked during previous interventions.

Additionally, ambassadors are in constant contact with each other and their leadership group, which this year is led by THS senior Brittany Roach, juniors Angeles Gracian, Julia Pool and Austin Miller, as well as sophomore Oscar Bejar.

Gracian, who has been involved in the program since her freshman year, said it is important to first learn about the facts and statistics of how bullying affects fellow students.

"No kid should be staying home because they are scared," she said. "Everyone should be going to school."

She also pointed out that many students feel pressured to live up to high expectations, not only from their peers, but from parents and teachers as well.

Demands range from doing well on tests, bringing home good grades, being a star athlete or to eventually excel at college.

"That kind of pressure can make some kids feel worthless if they don't live up to those expectations," she said. "So we need to let those kids who are experiencing that type of pressure, know that they are here for a reason and they can improve themselves."

Meanwhile, Miller, who has also been an ambassador since his freshman year, said he is excited about the new campaign. And although he feels safe on campus, it's the little things that often times goes unnoticed that lead to bigger problems, he noted.

"You kind of get used to the profanity, the put downs and the gossip that you hear in passing," he said. "I think having the training gives us an idea of how to react to even those little situations and gives us the tools to intervene in an way that really works."

Other campaign components

Besides developing intervention skills, ambassadors are also charged with developing a presentation that will be used to share their message with local service clubs and the school district's board of trustees.

They are also responsible for establishing a social media presence for the campaign on Facebook and Twitter, and they will produce a full-length anti-mistreatment video to be shown at the Safe School Ambassadors' Conference in Bakersfield on May 3.

Approximately 300 students from Bakersfield High School, East Bakersfield High School, Golden Valley High School, Liberty High School, and Lincoln Junior High School in Taft are expected to join Tehachapi at the conference, where ambassadors will participate in workshops, share success stories and swap ideas.

Barrett, who also serves as a Safe Schools Ambassadors' trainer, said he is excited to see the energy the students are bringing to the effort.

"I feel that they are really embracing the program and many of our first-year ambassadors have signed up again this year," he said. "What's even more exciting is seeing how enthusiastic our students are about taking the program out to the community and to our middle school, to talk about bullying, the effects that its has had on them personally and to share the skills necessary to be ambassadors in their own communities and schools."

For more information about the Safe Schools Ambassadors program, log onto www.safeschoolambassadors.org

Additional Kern County anti-bullying resources can be found at www.kernstopbullying.org.

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