<b>SIGNING:</b> Students, faculty, and AHA! staff hold up the “Peace Builders” hand gesture.
Courtesy Photo

Now that the dog days of summer are waning, campus life has become a hot topic for the school district. Nearly 60 high school students gathered at Santa Barbara High School in late August to participate in Academy of Healing Arts’ newest initiative: Peace Builders.

The name of AHA!’s—a 14-year-old, S.B.-based nonprofit dedicated to bettering the lives of local teens—pilot program sums up its mission quite well: cultivating a peaceful community, increasing connections, and reducing hatred on campus.

The two-day event brought together two SBHS assistant principals, Elise Simmons and Gabe Sandoval, counselor Martha Acevedo, two outreach coordinators for the district, 15 AHA! staff, and AHA! cofounders and directors Jennifer Freed and Rendy Freedman. Interactive games, small group discussions, short blocks of instruction, and inspirational talks that build “Peace-Q”—akin to IQ—which incorporates honesty and inclusivity to break racial, economic, and clique barriers on campus.

Freed asked the students: “What can you actually do to be a Peace Builder between now and September?” Student responses included being friendly, making eye contact, coolly approaching bullies, and sitting with students who eat lunch alone.

“I’ve always wanted to help other people who are bullied. Peace Builders kind of gives me the resources to do that,” Lily, a SBHS sophomore, said.

“Let’s make this trendy!” Freed told a cheering crowd. Freed, P.h.D., and Freedman, M.F.T., both have a background in marriage and family counseling, education, and group therapy.

During one of the sessions, the group encircled chairs and each shared one word they never wanted to be called again. On the second go-around, students shared a positive word that they wanted to hear more often. Another session included talks from AHA! staff about the history of the “n-word” and excessive use of the word “gay” at school and around town.

One of AHA!’s co-facilitators, SBCC psychology student, LeAndra Harris, 23, started with the youth program after feeling isolated and culture-shocked after she moved to Santa Barbara from the Bay Area when she was 16.

“I never felt black until I moved here,” she recalled. Her grandmother persuaded her to join the program that she first assumed to be “a bunch of hippie people holding hands.” But AHA! jump-started her own healing and allowed her to come to appreciate Santa Barbara, she said.

“What I love about AHA! is that it’s straight up,” she said. “Love yourself. Be concerned with you first before you comment on somebody else.” Seven years after her first meeting she said she’s excited and kind of shocked because the high school kids today are so receptive to the initiative. “It’s evolved into an amazing program,” she said.

Peace Builders also advocates for what is increasingly called Restorative Approaches, a fairly new discipline model that shies away from black-and-white consequences like detention and suspension and instead emphasizes personal responsibility, discussion, and repair. The goal is to first prevent offenses and then to teach offenders to resolve conflict, self-reflect, and make amends, which according to AHA!, reduces future offenses.

“Bullies are not happy people. They need help too,” Freed said.

Supported by Superintendent David Cash, Restorative Approaches will be implemented at SBHS, Goleta Valley Junior High, La Cumbre Junior High, and La Colina Junior High this school year after it piloted last year at Santa Barbara Junior High.

“It’s very important to me. We have a real deep commitment for change by our staff,” Cash said. “Our goal is to keep kids in school.”

Cash said staff was trained in Restorative Approaches this summer and they’ve released a teacher full-time to facilitate the program, provide support for teachers, answer questions, and integrate the process into daily procedure at the four schools.

“[Cash’s approaches] are top down, and that’s great,” Freed said. “But our mentors said the real change is getting the students to learn this stuff.”

AHA! recruited a range of SBHS students recognized by school staff as natural leaders for Peace Builders. Students received either a $100 stipend or community service hours for participating in the two-day event. It will continue to meet throughout the school year at lunchtime on the third Thursday of each month as a club open to all students.

Peace Builders is currently rooted at SBHS, but Freed hopes to eventually spread it throughout the district. The by-funding organization works with thousands of students at area schools each year.

“Honestly, I feel like we can sit here for however long and discuss the things we can do, the things we should do, but I don’t think anything will change if we’re not willing to make the effort,” said Michelle, a high school senior. “Change starts with us first.”


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