More than 50 students crowded the cafeteria at Santa Barbara High School this past week, getting ready for the school year nearly a week before classes officially begin. The teens volunteered to come early to participate in a three-day “Peace Builders” training workshop, where they learned how to interrupt bullying behavior and work to create an inclusive and safe campus environment.
The Peace Builders Initiative is led by facilitators from AHA!, a local nonprofit which works to prevent bullying and violence and to promote character, conscience, leadership and social-emotional intelligence.
“We are here today to make friends, because if everyone feels connected on their campuses then we have a peaceful campus culture,” said Dr. Jennifer Freed, AHA! co-founder and workshop leader. “Students will learn how to stand up for themselves and others with humor and curiosity instead of more hate, and our Peace Builder volunteers will learn how to make everyone feel as though they belong.”
The three-hour workshops mark the beginning of a yearlong collaboration between AHA! and students, teachers and administrators at Santa Barbara and San Marcos high schools as part of the new “restorative approach” to discipline that the Santa Barbara Unified School District has adopted. The students who attend the training workshop will become a part of the Peace Builders Club, which will meet monthly throughout the year with facilitators from AHA! and will be encouraged to lead their own circles once per week anywhere they choose.
The hope is that they’ll meet with different groups so that the program eventually reaches thousands. Students who complete both the workshop and participate in the club throughout the year will receive a certificate and a stipend.
John Becchio, principal at Santa Barbara High, said his school readily adopted the AHA! Peace Builders as part of the school’s restorative approach last year because “nothing changes the minds of students without student buy-in. Students are much more influenced by their peers than by adults.”
In fact, Assistant Principal Gabe Sandoval said the new approach has been successful in meeting school goals for reducing the number of suspensions and students sent out of the classroom for disruptive behavior. The restorative approach, unlike a punitive approach to discipline, encourages students to be accountable for their actions and find ways to “make things right” with those they have harmed.
The student participants at Santa Barbara High represented a broad demographic and said they came to the program for different reasons.
“I came today because I wanted to gain more confidence in talking to others,” one female sophomore said. Another said she wanted a greater sense of community, while a junior spoke about the importance of learning to be peaceful — a skill that applies to the real world. Another forward-thinking teen said, “A lot of our identity is formed in high school, and I think it’s important to learn to be open-minded, to have integrity, to be honest and to stand up for others. It’s a foundation for who we will be in the future.”
“In high school everyone is so concerned with fitting in and being the same, but this is a losing game. Everyone is beautifully, wonderfully different and we should embrace who we are," Freed said. “Wouldn’t it be great to show up at school and be who you really are?” she asked the group, who were collectively smiling and nodding in agreement.
AHA! was founded over 15 years ago by Dr. Freed and Rendy Freedman, both licensed psychotherapists, educators and certified mediators. AHA! serves over 2,500 teens and their families in school, after school and during summer break throughout Santa Barbara, Carpinteria and Goleta. Programs are funded by private donations and families are not turned away for lack of ability to pay.
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— Ann Pieramici represents AHA!