September 20-26, 2006

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Rick Phillips of Community Matters

It matters: Community Matters' executive director Rick Phillips believes that school violence can be diffused if the strongest kids lead.

Cool to Be Kind

Targeting 'alpha kids' as leaders for change

By Diane Darling

Columbine. Red Lake. Violence in the schools is a significant public-health issue that is pervasive and ongoing in every school system regardless of its demographics. Bullying is a familiar problem with an enormous, long-term price: adults who were targets of bullies have a high incidence of depression and low self-esteem. Adults who were schoolyard bullies have higher rates of incarceration and domestic and workplace violence. To say nothing of the heartbreaking effects on the child victims themselves: sleep disturbances, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, even suicide.

After the shootings at Columbine High School, the federal government poured millions of dollars into school safety, mostly in security measures: keep the guns out, keep the bombs out, keep the troublemakers out. All of which is what Community Matters' executive director Rick Phillips calls an 'outside-in' approach.

"Here's what we know: you can check the guns at the door, but you can't check the kids at the door," Phillips says, seated in the Sebastopol office of his nonprofit agency. "They still walk into the campus, into every building, bringing with them their grudges, stereotypes, family history, values and bruises that often get played out on campus."

This approach has been successful in that rates of school violence have declined. But that doesn't mean that the numbers are good. In 2003, reports show that in schools nationwide, there were 154,200 serious violent crimes--rape, sexual assault, aggravated assault (855 average each day); 584,500 simple assaults (3,250 average each day); and 1,191,400 thefts (6,620 average each day).

During Phillips' 20 years as a teacher and principal in California elementary and high schools, he witnessed the struggles of thousands of kids. "I saw the costs of school violence: the cost to the child; to the school in lost revenues due to suspensions; to school personnel time trying to deal with it; the cost to the families trying to assist their kids in having a successful school day. I saw these things every day."

Eleven years ago, Phillips, 60, founded Community Matters, an organization devoted to creating a safe physical and emotional environment for students to learn.

"We take a different approach, one focused on relationships, on empowering young people to partner with adults in addressing this issue," Phillips says. "And most importantly, setting up social norms of compassion and of bystanders speaking up and taking care of each other. We approach school violence from the inside out, putting students at the center."

In addition to the traditional schoolyard abuse of physical, verbal and social bullying, a novel form of harassment has recently emerged: cyberbullying. To a kid whose picture has been posted on a website to make him look bad, this can be devastating.

"Much of this is going on under the radar of what adults see," Phillips explains. "Overt bullying, teachers can see. But covert kinds have become pervasive and are usually not seen by adults."

Enter Safe School Ambassadors, an innovative program developed by Community Matters to diffuse the often-invisible elements that prompt school bullying and violence. Community Matters has been training Safe School Ambassadors for over five years: 15,000 people in 400 schools in 21 states have participated in the program. In the 2006-2007 school year, another 150 schools will incorporate this program into their social ecology.

"Students see, hear and know things that adults don't. They can intervene in ways that adults can't. Also, students are first on the scene of an incident before adults ever get there," Phillips reasons. "While adults set the rules, the young people set the social norms of what's cool or not cool. When it's cool to be cruel, that cannot be mandated away by policy. We can't prevent that away, we can't threaten that away or wish that away. We have to engage parents, staff and the community, but most importantly the young people themselves, because they hold the key to creating a safer school climate."

The first puzzle to be solved is in breaking the code of silence that inhibits kids from alerting adults to impending violence. At Columbine and Red Lake, it was reported that as many as a hundred kids knew days before that these incidents were planned, but no one spoke up. What was stopping them?

Community Matters found that kids fear retaliation from which adults cannot protect them, and while they may know right from wrong, they don't know what to say or do.

"Our challenge was to mobilize the bystanders, to change the social norms in a school from 'it's cool to be cruel' to 'it's cool to be compassionate, it's cool to intervene,'" Phillips says. "We had to look for the influential early adapters. The students most likely to speak up are the kids who have high social status amongst their peer groups. We identify the 'alpha kids' within all the different cliques of the school."

A school is like the United Nations: within each are little countries, and within each country are different customs, standards and leaders. Some of them have issues with other countries, with contrary belief systems, different behaviors and goals: stoners, jocks, goths, gangs and so on. Within each group are kids who have high social capital and well-developed verbal skills, who are likely to speak up in a situation. What Phillips and his team have done is to actually nominate those kids as Ambassadors. Once identified, an Ambassador is given training to be a peer mentor.

"We identify, recruit and train these alpha kids in nonviolent communication skills," he says. What motivates these so-called alpha kids to switch from cruelty to compassion?

"We speak to their enlightened sense of self-interest," Phillips smiles. "We say, 'Here's a program that will train you with communication skills that will help you get a job, get along with your parents better and negotiate with your friends and your teachers. And if you use them, you can also save your friends from getting in trouble, getting suspended, getting hurt, getting into a fight. You can play that role. That's what this program can do for you. You are already a powerful person. What about using your power to make the world around you and the people you care about safer and better?'"

Recently, the Navajo nation approached the program about helping it address youth violence by bringing the Safe School Ambassadors program to 50 reservation schools.

But most schools are underfunded. For the 2006-2007 school year, the federal government decreased funding for violence prevention by 21 percent. It costs $4,000 per school to bring the Safe School Ambassadors program to train 40 of the most powerful kids in skills they'll have for the rest of their lives at a cost of roughly $100 per child. And if these kids intervene to stop fights in their school, they will have paid for the program and more.

In many instances, the overall grade point average of the school improves, and in particular, the Ambassadors' grades, attendance, communication skills, empathy and acceptance of diversity improve markedly.

"Over a three- or four-year period, we see huge societal shifts within school systems. Schools where we've trained [to have] Safe School Ambassadors report reductions in fights and suspensions and in gang violence, and increases in attendance by those kids who used to stay home because of bullying.

"When a few months have gone by, we come back and interview the Ambassadors," Phillips explains. "They say, 'I feel different about myself. I used to feel like I was just another kid coming to this school to get educated, but now I know I'm somebody here who makes a difference. I come to school ready every day with a sense of purpose because I'm doing something I know is contributing, and it feeds me.'"

"What we're really doing is shining a light on a path that they didn't know existed. These are powerful kids, and they are looking for ways to express their power. We show them a different way, and they discover it feels good to walk this path of courage, healing, helping and compassion.

"We know it works: Believe in kids. Identify the ones who have social capital from all the diverse cliques. Teach them, train them, then meet with them regularly in school so they're not just left to their own devices and there's a safety net, a small circle of community around them as they do these brave actions.

"What we want more than anything is to give our work away to schools that want it."

Community Matters holds its second annual Circle of Change charitable luncheon on Nov. 9 at the Flamingo Hotel. For details, call 707.823.6159 or go to

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