Safe School Ambassadors®

Safe School Ambassadors® For Children & Youth

By Rick Phillips, MsEd, © Copyright 2008.

Safe School Ambassadors® Has Helped Kids With

  • Schools with active Safe School Ambassadors® (SSA) find reductions in drug abuse, gang involvement, interpersonal violence and bullying occur after having implemented the SSA program. These reductions, in turn, help alleviate stress and anxiety in the whole student body.
  • Improvement can be seen in statistics on self-esteem, dropout rates, academic performance, and attendance.
  • The program also increases positive communication among students and between Ambassadors and the adults trained in the SSA program.

Safe School Ambassadors® Can Help In The Following Areas

Spirit: Embody the spirit of inclusion. Students like to feel that “We are all in this community together.”

Body: Help prevent children and teens from getting assaulted. Help students to experience less fear and stress as interpersonal violence and bullying are reduced. Lessen the physical abuse caused by use of alcohol/drugs, since these are used less frequently.

Mind: Teach young people high level, nonviolent communication skills. Ambassadors help their friends to reason more carefully before acting.

Emotions: Reduce stress and fear. Promote self esteem and more positive affiliations with the school and within peer social networks.

Social: Encourage problem solving and nonviolent communication to manage conflicts. Increase confidence and competence for Ambassadors and those they influence directly.

Brief Description Of Safe School Ambassadors® Program

  • Community Matters staff assist students and school staff to identify appropriate students to be trained as Safe School Ambassadors®.
  • These students must fulfill several criteria, including being natural student leaders from within the various social groups in a school.
  • The SSA program training then teaches intervention techniques to these youth leaders to use informally, in the moment, when they see their friends doing things that might lead to trouble. The training also encourages and offers methods for Ambassadors to support targeted students and to befriend or include students who have been mistreated and excluded from social networks.
  • The SSA program training includes a small number of school staff and they then meet regularly with the trained student leaders to help them keep practicing these intervention skills and problem solve about common interpersonal difficulties. These trained adults from the campus community meet with Ambassadors in small groups, consistently and frequently, for ongoing skill building and to provide personal support, as well as to gather data about safety and students’ interactions on their campus.

Success With Safe School Ambassadors®

  • An unpopular high school girl was being harassed by other students in the hall between classes. The students were kicking her books and belongings that had fallen from her school bag. She had lost her glasses. The most popular cheerleader in the school had been trained as a Safe School Ambassador. When she saw what was happening, she dropped to her knees and began helping the girl gather her stuff – without saying a word. Almost immediately, other students stopped harassing the girl, and began helping gather her belongings.
  • A gang leader who was trained as a Safe School Ambassador was on his way home from school when he saw groups of boys gathering in a park in preparation for a gang fight. Using his skills and social status, he prevented a battle. By doing this he stopped much violence, physical injury, and another cycle of retribution.
  • Another Safe School Ambassador reported that he used his skills to defuse fights at home between his mother and father.

The Safe School Ambassadors® Program Is Appropriate For Ages

  • SSA works well with students in Elementary and Secondary schools.
  • Ambassadors can be drawn from grades 4 and higher, with students who are aged ten years and older.

Children & Youth’s Reactions To The Safe School Ambassadors® Program

  • The effects on schools can be felt after several months.
  • The Safe School Ambassadors® feel pride in being able to use their status to make a difference. They like being able to help their friends and to help make their school a better place. They take direct ownership of the school and community because they are making decisions about the quality of life in the school.
  • Initially, some Ambassadors feel uneasy about confronting their peers, and some of their peers are unsure of the reasons that these leaders’ behaviors and attitudes are changing so much. There can be friction between these leaders who are trained and intervening as Ambassadors and some of their friends, but usually the Ambassadors’ higher social status encourages the other students to be receptive and to follow their lead.
  • Some students do not like having their behaviors or attitudes challenged by their peers. However, most of the students have already learned how to deal with being questioned by or corrected by the leaders of their group, and there is not much resistance. Students who have not been trained start imitating these leaders, using the SSA skills with each other.


  • The SSA program was developed by Rick Phillips and Chris Pack in 2000, after the tragedies at Columbine occurred. The format and methods are based upon their own experiences and expertise in youth development and on the bullying in schools research of experts Dr. Ron Slaby, Dr. Dan Olweus and Dr. Wendy Craig. The first Safe School Ambassadors® program was launched in December, 2000, in Palm Beach County, Florida.
  • Between 2000 and 2006, the SSA program became implemented in over 500 schools and 18,000 students have been trained as Ambassadors. In the fall of 2006, there were 10 trainers who conducted program trainings in 44 schools in one month.

Basic Concepts And Components Of The Safe School Ambassadors® Program

  • Students are more likely than adults to know when trouble is about to happen or has already been occurring.
  • Students listen and respond to other students more than they will listen and respond to adults.
  • Student leaders are the most likely to know when trouble is about to happen, and to be able to, and willing to challenge their friends to change their negative behaviors. Because of their social status, these leaders are not as afraid to speak up to their friends.
  • Both school staff and students identify who the leader students are in the school’s social groups.
  • Student leaders appreciate learning usable skills to intervene on behalf of their friends’ and everyone’s safety.
  • With effective intervention skills, student leaders are in the best position to reduce school violence and other behaviors that will cause harm and trouble.
  • Safe School Ambassadors® need regular, ongoing, consistent support from adults to strengthen their intervention skills and to maintain their courage and commitment for being Ambassadors.

How Safe School Ambassadors® Operate In Their Schools

  • Safe School Ambassadors® start taking action almost immediately after being trained.
  • As they gain confidence and competence, the number of interventions steadily rises over the first several months, and often levels off after that.
  • At first their interventions are sometimes “after the fact,” or just as mistreatment is occurring.
  • Once Ambassadors have been operating on a campus for several years, the social norms change significantly and mistreatment occurs less often.
  • The need for their interventions steadily declines and the timing of their interventions moves to earlier in the mistreatment continuum.

Variations For Implementation Of The Safe School Ambassadors® Program

  • Visibility of the Safe School Ambassadors® varies from school to school, in that some Ambassadors operate “undercover” and some are known to their peers.
  • Trainers leave these decisions to each group, and inform them of the benefits and risks of both approaches.
  • Timing, duration, activities and frequency of the ongoing small group meetings of Ambassadors with their adult leader vary from school to school.
  • It is important for the meetings to be regular and consistent, and to include time for Ambassadors’ intervention skills to be supported and data collected; the rest of the choices are up to each school.

Some Examples Of Safe School Ambassadors’ Interventions

  • Safe School Ambassadors® are taught six or seven verbal and nonverbal/nonviolent interventions.
  • Interventions are used when trouble is about to happen or has already begun.
  • The interventions are simple and can be done quickly.
  • Example: Two boys are calling a smaller boy names. The Safe School Ambassador, who knows the two boys, might say, “Hey, the kid’s ok. Leave him alone.” An invitation to the kid who has been excluded might be made as well. The Ambassador’s higher social status is enough to get the bullies to change their behaviors.
  • Informal interventions tend to happen where there are no adults available. Children and teens often know what is happening or is about to happen long before any adults.
  • Another example: An Ambassador sees that a student has a gun and hears him talking about planning to use it to hurt another student. The Ambassador goes to notify his group leader, who was trained along with him in the program. The adult notifies authorities, who find the armed student, disarm and escort him off campus, and no one gets hurt.
  • Getting adult help is newly conceived as valuable in protecting their friends. Safe School Ambassadors® are empowered to be responsible for their social group, have formed positive, trusting adult relationships with at least one other adult, and are trained to get adult help if they hear of a threat their own interventions cannot manage.

Description Of A Typical Training Session

  • For two consecutive school days, one Safe School Ambassador trainer assembles 26 - 40 carefully chosen student leaders and some appropriate adults from the campus community (school staff, parents, and faculty) for a ratio of one adult to six or seven students, and conducts the training.
  • The students come together, perhaps for the first time without danger, in this consciously established, controlled setting.
  • In this training, Ambassadors build trust, bridges between social groups, respect among these student leaders, and between the students and adults present.
  • During the training, Ambassadors learn the benefits and purposes of being able to identify and prevent mistreatment.
  • Ambassadors practice non violent communication and intervention skills to help their friends and to improve school safety by preventing, mitigating and stopping these negative effects and occurrences.
  • Guided role playing is used extensively.
  • Confidence and competence are gained with practicing these skills.

Fees/Costs Per Two-Day School Training Session In 2007

  • Elementary schools - $3,550, plus trainers’ travel expenses
  • Middle schools - $3,950, plus trainers’ travel expenses
  • Secondary schools - $3,950, plus trainers’ travel expenses
  • This works out to about $100 to $150 per Ambassador/per training.

Estimated Length Of Time Before Improvements Can Be Expected

  • The effects on schools can usually be felt after several months.

Conditions That Ensure Success When Implementing The Safe School Ambassadors® Program

  • Key school staff (administration, counselors, and teachers) must support the program, and encourage and allow for the two days of training plus the regular small group meetings to occur during school time for the trained Ambassadors and adults.
  • The “right” students (those who fulfill all the criteria for being effective Safe School Ambassadors®) and appropriate adults (those who will actively support and encourage the Ambassadors’ efforts) must be selected to become trained.
  • The small group meetings must occur regularly and frequently, and the time must be used well to support and encourage the Ambassadors.

Suggestions To Make Safe School Ambassadors® More Effective

  • Ask children specific questions about school life. Listen without over reacting.
  • Have discussions about school life. Be hopeful.
  • Set examples of speaking up and standing up for other people.
  • Encourage children who are selected to be Safe School Ambassadors® to take it seriously and be committed.
  • Encourage children to speak up and stand up for other people.
  • Encourage and promote students to be peacemakers.
  • Model peacemaking and negotiating in the home.

Other Programs That Are Similar To Safe School Ambassadors® Program

  • There appear to be few other intervention programs that train students to intervene in the moment, informally, when incidents are about happen.
  • Some conflict resolution programs offer prevention/intervention skills, but often lack ongoing support for students to practice or utilize these skills.
  • Peer mediation and peer helping/counseling programs train students to assist other students to manage already existing conflicts and require more formal meetings and appointments.
  • A Challenge Day (CD) assembly is not a program, but it does start the process of identifying mistreatment, raising awareness of bullying and begins the bridge-building process across social groups on a campus. A Challenge Day is a good launching pad for the SSA program. CDs are only used in secondary schools.

Other Programs That Complement Safe School Ambassadors® Programs

  • Peacemaking/Peace builders
  • Youth Empowerment and Development programs
  • Character education curricula
  • Service learning
  • School-wide anti-bullying curricula
  • Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS)
  • Building Effective Schools Together (BEST)
  • Olweus Bullying Prevention programs
  • Classroom based respect programs/curricula

Process For Becoming A Safe School Ambassadors® Program Trainer

  • The training process begins with observing an SSA program training.
  • Being open to supervision and coaching is important.
  • Attending a few more trainings while taking increasing responsibility for 20, 50, 80, and then 100% of training occurs, all under supervision.
  • Attendance at a yearly retreat is also part of ongoing training.
  • Trainers consider themselves to be members of a learning community.
  • Training local trainers using a similar process is also offered.
  • SSA program trainers need to be certified by Safe School Ambassadors® parent organization’s senior staff after completing the graduated competence steps listed above.

Characteristics Of Effective Safe School Ambassadors® Program Trainers

  • Trainers ought to have a charismatic presence and experience working with groups of youth.
  • They must also be well organized and able to manage activities and time, as well as be adept at handling several activities simultaneously.
  • Trainers must be comfortable with diversity and respectful of differences.

Professional Associations To Contact For Names Of Local Trainers

  • There are currently none.

Resources, Research Papers, Books, DVDs, Websites

  • Safe School Ambassadors® book and web site: www.safeschoolambassadors.org.
  • Fein, Robert A., Bryan Vossekuil, William Pollack, Randy Borum, William Modzelski, and Marisa Reddy. Threat Assessment in Schools: A guide to Managing Threatening Situations And To Creating Safe School Climates. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center, Washington, DC, 2004.
  • University of Colorado - Center for the Study & Prevention of Violence. They have a “Safe Communities - Safe Schools” initiative launched in 1999 and it includes some models and fact sheets that would help a reader of the book understand more about the issue from a school perspective, including steps a school can take.
    “CSPV developed the Safe Communities~Safe Schools Model to assist each school in designing an individualized safe school plan. The goal of this model is to create and maintain a positive and welcoming school climate, free of drugs, violence, intimidation and fear — an environment strongly supported by the community in which teachers can teach and students can learn.” For more on this topic, see: .
  • The Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, Bloomington, has a Safe and Responsive Schools Project; Russell Skiba is the Director. For a news release from the University, and a helpful overview of the Center’s findings about Zero Tolerance, see: http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news/page/normal/1333.html.

Biography Of Rick Phillips, PhD, Author

  • Father, Teacher, Principal, Superintendent
  • Co-Founder of Safe School Ambassadors®

Rick Phillips’ Personal Statement

Every child deserves to attend a school where they feel welcome, safe, and connected. As adults, we must recognize that we alone cannot protect our children from emotional and physical violence. We must support young people in bringing voice to their values, and courage to their actions, if we are to truly create safe schools. We must engage, equip, and empower the students who are in the best position to speak up and intervene when they witness peer on peer mistreatment. The Safe School Ambassadors® program provides a proven and effective approach for creating safer school climates where it’s cool to be compassionate, not cool to be cruel.

To Contact Rick Phillips, Who Contributed This Chapter

Rick Phillips; Community Matters; P.O. Box 14816; Santa Rosa, CA 95402; Ph: 707-823-6159; Fax: 707-823-3373; Website: www.safeschoolambassadors.org; Email: info@safeschoolambassadors.org

Marie Mulligan’s Comment About Safe School Ambassadors®: I am still learning about this. It sounds promising.

Rick Geggie’s Comment About Safe School Ambassadors®: Violence and bullying have been long time concerns for me as a parent, teacher, principal, and now grandfather. Safe School Ambassadors® is the best program I have ever seen. It empowers and equips students to get involved with each other in helpful ways. I have been very moved by listening to very tough gang members talk about the changes in their lives and in the lives of their friends. School staff speak very highly of this program as well. I want this program in my granddaughter’s schools.

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