Ex-chief of Chop’s Teen Club in Santa Rosa now urges kids to find their courage

Diana Curtin has taken over a program that enlists students to act to prevent campus violence, bullying and exclusion.|

Diana Curtin wasn’t looking for a new job.

The red-crested dynamo was running Chop’s Teen Club and helping it realize its potential as a built-from-scratch haven where Santa Rosa kids can play, create, learn and prepare to do well in the grown-up world.

“I loved Chop’s,” said the strongly child-focused Curtin, an executive with Girl Scouts of Northern California before directing the teen club from 2009 until just last fall.

That’s when opportunity knocked. A man Curtin regards as a genius was retiring as founder of a Sonoma County-born approach to making schools safer and more effective by helping influential students find the courage to act when observing bullying and other hurtful behaviors, and in time to lift up the campus culture.

Would Curtin care to apply to succeed Rick Phillips, the former teacher and school administrator who agonized over school massacres and bullying-related deaths and probed his imagination for a better solution to campus violence than making schools more prisonlike?

Yes, Curtin would.

Even while she enjoyed growing and refining the offerings and amenities at Chop’s Teen Club, she said, “I knew there was a broader platform out there.”

Today Phillips, 71, has stepped down to a role of part-time consultant to Community Matters, the nonprofit he and former partner Chris Pack created in 1995 to train students to be more than bystanders and make their schools safer, more welcoming and inclusive.

Now Curtin, 52, is running the agency - and aiming high.

“The way I see it,” she said at her new office on Stony Point Road, 2 miles west of Chop’s, “we could be in every single school.

“And every school needs this program.”

Under the leadership of founder Phillips, Community Matters introduced the concept of addressing school violence, bullying and shunning from the inside to more than 2,000 elementary and secondary schools in 38 states, Canada, Puerto Rico and Guam.

At the core of the approach is the discreet training of a corps of students as safe school ambassadors. Which students?

Phillips said it’s essential that the kids who are approached and asked if they’d like to participate are the natural leaders in every campus subset. These are the students, Phillips said, that the other kids “look up to, respect and want to be like.”

The students who are quietly invited to become safe school ambassadors aren’t issued hall-monitor uniforms and authorized to start barking orders. What they do, without revealing their mission, is subtle.

They might:

Approach and include students who are being excluded;

Tell someone who’s bullying or using put-downs that it’s not cool, not something that’s done at that school; and

Speak to a campus administrator if there’s word of a fight, or that someone has carried a weapon to school.

Phillips and Curtin said there have been many successes, many instances of potential violence being defused by safe school ambassadors and many reports of campus cultures being turned more welcoming and inclusive.

Curtin shared an email from an administrator at a Sacramento-area high school that has participated in the program for three years. The educator related that immediately after the training of some new safe school ambassadors, two other students engaged in a war of words on Twitter that led one to ponder suicide.

The administrator wrote, “Our Safe School Ambassadors intervened by supporting the victim, directing the attacker to stop and getting help.

“The student is now getting support. This was a dangerous situation very possibly stopped because of some new and some veteran Safe School Ambassadors on our campus. We are making a difference.”

Curtin has taken the wheel at a nonprofit that operates on a $2 million annual budget and relies on payments from schools that take on the Safe School Ambassadors programs.

A significant share of the agency’s revenue comes also from fundraising, grants and from insurance companies providing coverage to schools and that have observed fewer incidents resulting in insurance payouts at schools with student ambassadors.

Phillips and Curtin said research has shown that schools that have adopted the Community Matters program are not only safer, but experience fewer expulsions, reduced absenteeism and higher commencement rates.

“When children feel safe and welcomed by their peers, they can learn,” Curtin said.

She noted that in addition to its centerpiece Safe School Ambassadors program, Community Matters works with schools in the areas of cyberbullying, restorative justice, parent education and staff training, LGBTQI student support and peer-to-peer substance abuse prevention.

Curtin appreciates that at the heart of a program important and promising enough to draw her away from Chop’s are children and teens willing to do what everyone should do: Care, speak up, right a wrong.

“This is a program to teach you how to be a better human being,” she said.

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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