Dozens of students and teachers from Lehighton Area High School gathered this week to take part in "Safe School Ambassadors," a program meant to prevent peer pressure and bullying. They spent two days learning how to tackle these problems, which affect school districts across the country.
"I think we can all remember the type of peer pressure that we experienced in our own high school years, said Kelly Keffer, the school's Project Humanity advisor and coordinator for the program. "There is a lot of bullying in every school."
Schools have been attempting to prevent and stop bullying and teen violence for decades. These efforts hit a new level of urgency on April 20, 1999, when two students entered Columbine High School and killed 12 of their peers and one teacher before committing suicide. Bullying and violence prevention have been at the forefront of school district minds ever since.
"We realized that if we were going to make any positive changes, they would need to come from the students," said Keffer, noting that students make up more than 90 percent of the school population. They can potentially have a much larger impact on the school environment than teachers and adults. "They can see problems before the adults do."
This is the concept behind the Safe School Ambassadors training program, explained program trainer Hope Clark, who led the students and teachers through two days of workshops and lessons. Safe School Ambassadors is run through the non-profit organization Community Matters.
"They (students) see so many things that the adults don't," said Clark. "Our program works from the outside-in to transform the climate and culture of schools, and to make them a more respectful place and a safe place to learn."
She noted that many schools have begun inside-out programs, using metal detectors and safety officers to keep danger from entering the school. But this doesn't prevent peer pressure and bullying and it doesn't stop violence outside of the school grounds.
Safe School Ambassadors promotes good communication and problem-solving skills among students, which can transfer to any environment or location. If students in the training program can change their mindset about teasing and bullying, they may be able to change the way their peers think about these problems.
"It's not like safe student patrols," she added. "It's not about snitching. It's about keeping kids out of trouble, and building a safe community."
Students chosen for the program had to be freshmen, sophomores or juniors, so that they would be able to continue their job as role models and mediators into next school year. These students were also seen as school leaders and current role models.
Lehighton is the first school district in Pennsylvania to run the program. Safe School Ambassadors currently operates in more than 600 schools throughout the United States and Canada, and has been shown to reduce bullying, improve grades and attendance, decrease vandalism, and improve the overall school environment.
During the program, students learned the importance of intervening if someone is being bullied. Intervention starts with noticing the problem, but it's also important to support the person being teased and act out against the bully to let them know that bullying won't be tolerated at Lehighton.
"In just one day, we've already learned so much," said Kara Serfass, a sophomore at Lehighton High School. "We learned how to handle bullies, and to improve our communication skills."
While some students were initially hesitant to take part in the program, they soon embraced the chance to make their school a safer learning environment. They noted that it's important to stop bullying before it becomes a bigger problem.
It's easy enough to tease someone who doesn't fit in or is different than you. It takes guts to stand up to a bully and stop peer pressure among teens - but these kids are ready for the challenge.
"It's a good program," said Anthony Farole, also a sophomore. "It's going to eliminate bullying at our school."