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About SSA: What Works

"Outside In" Is Not Enough

A quick scan of schools' efforts in the past decade shows that most have responded to the issue of school violence and school safety first and foremost by preparing for a disaster. When they do turn toward prevention, it is typically from the "outside in" - increasing supervision and surveillance, setting stricter policies with tougher consequences for violation, setting up tip-lines and boxes, putting up signs and conducting assemblies.

This Outside-In approach has limited impact. There just are not enough adults to be in every hotspot.

"It's not a hardware issue anymore -- it's an interpersonal issue. It's the relationships between the people in the school."

--Bill Bond, Security Consultant, National Association of Secondary School Principals

A recent survey by the National Association of Attorneys General found that while students generally appreciate the new measures, the changes do not increase their sense of safety (and thus do not help increase academic achievement and student performance) because they have little impact on school climate (the way people treat each other on campus).

While we can force students to leave their colors, knives and guns at the school door, they still bring inside their prejudices, cliques, grudges, and attitudes. Their words become their weapons, and the casualties mount. Clearly, safe schools must be built in a different way.

The "Inside Out" Approach

Research and field experience indicate that safe schools must be built from the "Inside Out".

"Students see, hear and know things adults don't, and they can intervene in ways adults can't."

-­Rick Phillips, Executive Director, Community Matters

How to harness students' power? Research indicates that at any given time the vast majority of students (as high as 85%) are neither aggressors nor targets; they are involved only as bystanders. Most bystanders respond to the mistreatment they witness in one of two ways:

  • they encourage the aggressors (so they don't set themselves up to be targets later on)
  • they are silent, and thus collude with the abuse

Usually they don't intervene because they fear retaliation and don't know what to do.

But when bystanders DO step in, the bullying stops. Research shows that when a peer speaks up, the length of the bullying incident is cut by 75%.

How to Mobilize the Bystanders

Since bystanders hold the key to stopping mistreatment, how can they be motivated to act? The answer: by their leaders.

As popularized in The Tipping Point and confirmed in scientific research, the social norms of a community change when a select few individuals ­ its "opinion leaders" ­ change their behavior, and use their status to influence others. Gather the opinion leaders, motivate them to change, and the community norms follow suit quickly.

Breaking the Code of Silence

The second part of the answer revolves around "empowerment." For example, most of the talk about "breaking the code of silence" omits one simple fact: students will only bring information forward if they feel empowered. Telling them they'll save a life, maybe their own, is like a hook without bait. When they are truly valued by the adults at their school, engaged in meaningful dialogue, heard and respected, and invited to play meaningful roles ... then it will feel natural to share important information with the adults who are their partners in making their school a safe place. Empowering students is more than enlightened educational practice; it is an essential component of building safe schools.

Download a 2-page summary of the research PDF Document on which the SSA program is based.

Read the Research Report that describes the logic model at the core of the Safe School Ambassadors program.

See the core components of the Safe School Ambassadors Program Model.


"The key to stopping bullying lies in the hands of the bystanders."

Jeff Parker, psychologist. Interview on ABC News Special: The In Crowd and Social Cruelty, aired 2/15/02

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