Trainer Helen Perdue was in full teaching mode by 11:10 a.m. Thursday and she had everyone’s attention.
In a small quad area between classrooms at Vacaville’s Callison Elementary, she laid down a 30-foot line of white duct tape. Some 40 students — fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders — gathered on one side and responded to her questions. If the answer was yes, they crossed the line; if no, they stayed in place.
“I have been teased or insulted because of my religion?” Twelve students crossed the line.
“Thank you,” said Perdue, and the 12 students rejoined the larger group on the other side of the line and waited for another question.
“I have been teased or insulted, or left out, because of the size and shape of my body?” Nearly 30 students crossed.
“I have seen a fight happen and wanted to stop it but didn’t know how to?” Nearly all crossed.
“I believe it’s important for everyone at my school to feel safe, both physically and emotionally?”
All students crossed upon hearing Perdue’s last question, part of a block of instruction that served to launch the school’s Safe School Ambassadors Program, the first elementary in Vacaville to do so.
Developed by the Sebastopol-based Community Matters, the training, which continues at the school today, is a program that trains diverse and socially influential leaders to intervene with their friends and classmates when they see teasing, bullying and other acts of cruelty, said Perdue, a Bay Area-based
former middle school teacher who earned a master’s degree in education.
“The focus is empowering students to be the change-makers, to know there are effective actions” they can take to make a difference, to make their schools a safer place to learn, she said inside Room 14, site of the daylong training.
As she spoke, a visitor to the classroom could see the points and lessons she was trying to convey to the students throughout the morning. They were written on poster-size pieces of paper at the front of the class, labeled with outlines headlined “Types of Mistreatment” — exclusion, put-downs, bullying, unwanted physical treatment — “The Ambassadors Job” — notice the four types of mistreatment, among other things — and “Community Agreements” — respect each other’s ideas, set an example (a positive one), participate fully, encourage each other, have patience, be a leader and keep confidentiality.
The program is designed to be proactive rather than reactive, said Catherine Bozzini, principal of the 955-student campus, adding that schools for many students can be a place where they don’t feel welcome, safe and included.
“We see the program as a valuable resource in our efforts to improve school climate, attendance and academic performance,” she added.
Bozzini noted that officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta say 75 percent of students confide that they have been bullied at school, an estimate given credence by the response to Perdue’s questions.
The training, funded by a North Bay Schools Insurance Authority grant, comes at a time when school safety has been elevated to a primary concern at public schools nationwide following the April 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colo. There, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, killed 12 fellow students and a teacher, then fatally shot themselves. Many schools responded by making themselves into fortresses, increasing supervision and surveillance, limiting access, setting stricter policies with graver consequences.
Until recently, schools and communities largely have overlooked the best source for stopping school violence and cruelty: the students themselves, Perdue said.
Students, she noted, can see and hear what adults cannot and can intervene in ways adults cannot but sometimes don’t know what to do.
The training, which included skits, simulated situations and a video clip from ABC’s “20/20″ news magazine program, provided skills for the students to make a difference in their school’s safety and overall atmosphere, Bozzini said.
“The power is ours,” she said following Thursday’s training. “After all, 90 percent of the school is made of students. They have the power to make a change.”
The state Department of Education has posted bullying and hate-motivated behavior prevention resources on its web site, a sign that Sacramento officials take the issue seriously in the wake of sometimes tragic occurrences on school campuses.
“Bullying is common, but it should not be viewed as a normal part of growing up,” said Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction. “It is more damaging to children than previously thought. Bullying has a negative effect on a student’s ability to learn.”
Shereene Wilkerson, assistant superintendent for Vacaville Unified School District, said programs such as Safe School Ambassador can be included in each school’s Safe School Plan.
“Bullying would be part of that,” she said, noting that the district has provided anti-bullying awareness instruction in the past.
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