Students were slowly waking up to the rhythm of school as they returned from winter break earlier last month, but took quickly to a daily routine most adults don't see.
"There's a lot of drama going on right now in the seventh grade," seventh grader Mauricio Esqueda said.
He and more than two dozen other students are Safe Ambassadors at Cottonwood Middle School who were chosen because of their influence in their peer groups.
Students are the first people to see instances of mistreatment, making them more able than teachers to stand up for targets.
"Adults don't know what goes on in the school culture," Cottonwood-Oak Creek Counselor Barb Daher said. "When you have this group of students that kind of infiltrate into their groups, things start to get better. They can actually be on the scene."
Daher started the Safe Schools Ambassadors program during the 2010-11 school year with students recommended by their teachers as influential in their peer groups.
"I don't care what their grades are, I don't care how their behavior is," Daher said. "A lot of times it's just because of personality, and then other times it's because they've lived lives that people that are 70 years old haven't lived. Life can be this very cruel teacher or it can be this very positive teacher, and these students have had all these experiences."
Suspensions were down by half after the program's first year, and discipline has stayed low.
"The general population on this campus has definitely become kinder," she said.
The program targets five types of mistreatment: exclusion, put-downs, unwanted physical attention, acts against campus and bullying, or being terrorized by a specific person over a period of time.
"Things that happen a million times in five minutes on the playground, we're training these kids how to notice it and how to think, act and then follow up," Daher said.
Students decide whether they want to be trained to be ambassadors. Most students say yes, and attend a training at the recreation center complete with food.
One day is spent on self-exploration and breaking down barriers. Day two is when they are taught how to use simple techniques, like changing the subject that can keep a situation from escalating.
"It doesn't solve the bullying, but at least it solves the bullying for that moment," Daher said.
About 10 kids at a time meet every two weeks to talk about some of the situations they've encountered.
During group exercises, students talk about some of the instances they witnessed recently.
"That's how the adults stay in tune," she said. "The adults do not do any discipline, the students just defuse situations. The students figure out how to get in there and help out without actually confronting somebody."
They break into smaller groups of three or four, and practice a skit that shows a situation that could have turned into a bigger incident.
"The skits are situations that actually would happen on campus," she said. "It comes from the students and the students are the ones who have the power."
CMS's program has retained its entire first class of students recruited as sixth graders, and who are now eighth graders.
"There's usually a lot of students that drop out," Daher said. "They just kind of lose interest, and I have the exact group of eighth graders that started in sixth grade."
COCSD shares Daher with the Clarkdale-Jerome School district. Mountain View Preparatory and Oak Creek School have scaled-down versions of the program, taught in a classroom setting.
Several anti-bullying programs came out of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, Daher said, including the Safe School Ambassadors. Daher said this program gives students the skills as well as the desire to change the way people are treated on campus.
A head trainer flew out from California to teach Daher and the kids what they'd need to know to get started. The cost of getting the program off the ground can be around $5,600, according to the Safe Schools website.
Daher said she put in a lot of time and effort during the program's first year. As the kids have returned for their second and third years, it's been easier to bring in new sixth graders.
"I had a solid seventh and eighth grade group that was moving up and basically I just made sure that the couple sixth graders that were nominated in were with those strong students in those smaller groups that we do through the year, and it jelled."
Seventh graders Mauricio Esqueda and Kyle Simmons, and sixth grader Maeleigh Coriz said sometimes classmates just need to be reminded of the consequences they may face if they decide to ditch class or deface school property.
Esqueda said it was a few weeks ago when he and a fellow ambassador stopped two girls from fighting.
"I knew it was for a dumb reason," he said. "We told them to compromise and showed them that if you do this, these are the consequences."
Simmons was helping a friend whose girlfriend had just broken up with him. The friend sent a text about how sad he was, and students were sharing it to embarrass him.
"Everybody is spreading rumors," he said. "He's my best friend, so I'm trying to defend him. So I'm like, not everybody needs to know. So that's definitely one of our things, is definitely stop drama and stop gossip as much as possible."
Name-calling started a fight between Coriz's two friends.
"They're not friends anymore," she said. "I said it's not worth fighting because you guys are just going to get into trouble. They didn't want to get suspended or written up."
In the program since sixth grade, Esqueda said he was seeing a lot of bullying even in fifth grade.
"I started noticing that these people may think you're not cool, but you'll always have that person," he said.
When Simmons saw kids getting picked on in elementary school before he was at CMS, he said he didn't always do something to help.
"The group has made me kind of a better person because it's a lot of good people in the group," he said. "Coming up here, I feel like the kids, they know that we're out there."
Seventh and eighth grade are difficult years socially for students, with much more instances of mistreatment than in younger grades. Daher said. Maeleigh may use her skills twice a week, while Kyle and Mauricio are defusing situations three to four times daily.
"By seventh, it's like second nature," Daher said.
Coriz, Esqueda and Simmons said it's even more difficult to step in when it's a friend who's breaking the rules.
"In fifth grade, there were more fights," Coriz said. "Now, since I joined, there haven't been a lot of fights in our area. When I tell my friend, you shouldn't be doing that, tell the truth, she gets mad at me because I'm like, bossy."
"Even though you might be scared, it all turns out for the best," Mauricio said.
"I was always afraid to confront my friends," Kyle said. "Eventually, if you help them make the right choice, they'll appreciate that."