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MONTE DRAPER \ BEMIDJI PIONEER (From left) Jeff Lueken, Joe Lueken, Rick Phillips and Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Jim Hess helped unveil a new program, Safe Schools Ambassadors, on Thursday afternoon. Philips is the executive director and founder of Community Matters that developed the anti-bullying program that will be implemented in the elementary schools later this fall.

Blocking out bullying: New program launched to help curb bullying in Bemidji schools

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BEMIDJI -- Bullying is an epidemic that continues growing and mutating, now skewing younger, becoming meaner and spreading electronically, an anti-bullying advocate said Thursday while visiting Bemidji.

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"The virus grows in an environment of indifference," said Rick Phillips, executive director and founder of Community Matters, a California-based nonprofit that developed the Safe Schools Ambassador program. "If we have bystanderism as a native value, this virus will only continue to grow.

"What we've got to to do is change the conditions, and how we do that is to wake up the courage of the kids."

The Joseph and Janice Lueken Family Foundation on Thursday unveiled its plan to fund the implementation of the Safe Schools Ambassador program throughout Bemidji Area Schools' six elementary schools.

"The benefits of (this) are so deep and long, that it was like, we should really look at this for our community," said Jeff Lueken, speaking inside Lueken's Village Foods South alongside his father, Joe Lueken, Phillips and Jim Hess, superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools. "It really was another facet of support for local education."

The Safe School Ambassadors program works from the "inside-out," identifying and training socially influential student leaders to speak up and intervene in bullying incidents.

"The work here is, wake up the courage of kids, tap their empathy but provide them with the skills and confidence to be safe and effective and they will naturally do what they naturally, they will speak up and intervene," Phillips said.

This fall, the program will be rolled out to the six schools by identifying 25 to 30 fourth- and fifth-grader students in each school. They are chosen based on the surveys of students, who are essentially asked, "Who do you trust to speak up for you? Who of your peers would you turn to for help?"

"We're really changing the social norms on the campus from its cool to be cruel to it's cool to be kind," Phillips said.

The Bemidji pilot program will mark the first foray into Minnesota for Safe Schools Ambassadors, which has educated more than 60,000 students in 1,300 schools in 32 states, according to Community Matters.

Hess said he initially was unfamiliar with the program but after doing some research, he is wholly in support of implementing it locally.

"We think this is a great compliment to what we're presently doing and the programs we presently offer," he said. "This will maybe .... be the right kind of impetus from where we are to even fewer incidents of bullying, fewer fights, fewer assaults."

Debra Hall, a principal at a junior high school in California, reported to Community Matters that her school experienced a 67 percent decrease in office referrals, an 84 percent decrease in detentions and an 85 percent decrease in suspensions since the Safe Schools Ambassadors was launched there.

Community Matters reports that an independent study of the program showed a 33 percent decrease in suspensions at Safe School Ambassadors schools while non-SSA schools experienced 10 percent increases in suspensions in the same timeframe.

"(Bullying) doesn't end at the end of the school day," Phillips said. "Once these skills are acquired, what we see naturally is students will use them in whatever (situation) they're in, it could be the dance Friday night or the football game or just hanging out at the park. Wherever meanness shows up, you want to have kids that have the skills and the leadership to interrupt it."

Assuming the program proves successful this year, it would spread to the middle and high schools next year.

"Really, our longterm goal is to really enlists the assistance of like-minded people throughout the community, to implement it in area schools too, like Cass Lake," Jeff Lueken said.

According to Community Matters literature, more than 160,000 students stay home daily because they are afraid to attend school. Further, bullied children are more than six times more likely to have suicidal thoughts.

"The result they've had over the years, in 13 years, the results they've had have been phenomenal," Joe Lueken said. "It's huge for the community, the schools, children, it's good for everybody."

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