Siena Ambassadors pose with ninth-grade students from Capital Prep Harlem. The high school students recently completed training with the Siena students, and are now Capital Prep Harlem student ambassadors.
Siena Ambassadors pose with ninth-grade students from Capital Prep Harlem. The high school students recently completed training with the Siena students, and are now Capital Prep Harlem student ambassadors.
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Siena College in Loudonville is gearing up to help other universities in New York State tackle cyberbullying, thanks to the Siena Upstander Ambassador Program.

The program is a collaborative effort between the Siena College Research Institute (SCRI), AT&T, and the Tyler Clementi Foundation, all taking aim to eliminate cyberbullying at the high school level in New York.

“It’s about creating a culture shift” around cyberbullying, said April Backus, program director for the Upstander Ambassador Program. 

The Siena Upstander ambassadors have spent the past two years traveling to high schools across the state delivering workshops and presentations to student groups about the signs and methods of dealing with cyberbullying.

Now, the program is looking to expand its reach to Hunter College in Manhattan, where Siena ambassadors will train fellow Hunter students as Upstander ambassadors to combat cyberbullying in high schools around New York City.

“The game plan is to have regional centers set up,” said Thomas Ruhl, Upstander ambassador. Siena College will be able to coordinate working with high schools in central and upstate, while Hunter College can work with schools downstate. “I’m glad I’m still here to see it happen,” the senior added. 

Cyberbullying

The Upstander program, in partnership with AT&T, was born from the Upstate Cyberbullying Census survey conducted in 2016 by the Siena College Research Institute. The results of the survey showed that 1 in 4 students in upstate New York have fallen victim to cyberbullying. 

“The results were so shocking, they wanted to do something to lower the numbers,” said Mr. Ruhl. As a result, Siena College became the pilot for the Upstander Ambassador Program. 

Mrs. Backus said common examples of cyberbullying focus on either a student’s race or sexual orientation, or the distribution of a student’s explicit photos. Siena students are given diversity and leadership lessons during their ambassador training to help facilitate conversation on such cyberbullying subject matters.

Mr. Ruhl, who is currently completing his student-teaching requirement at Troy High School, said that he has seen cyberbullying first hand during his time at the school. One popular trend, seen at both Troy and Albany High, he said, is students “airdropping” embarrassing photos to nearby classmates. “Airdropping” — a feature offered on the iPhone — allows a sender to immediately, and anonymously, distribute photos to any other iPhone in the surrounding area. 

While his background with the Upstander program has helped him catch instances of bullying, Mr. Ruhl said it’s still difficult to come up with a solution to every problem: “The technology is developing so fast; the means for prevention [to cyberbullying] can’t keep up.”

Through its fast-paced evolution, “technology has become more prevalent in schools and in communities,” said Mrs. Backus. “We can’t prevent [the bullying that’s] going on when kids are at home, so we give kids the tools to take home.”

Training and teaching

Since its inception, the program has worked with more than 10,000 high school students in the Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo, Rochester and Long Island area. Last year, Siena ambassadors met with students at Catholic Central High School in Troy, and at the end of the day, conducted an assembly for the seventh-and eighth-grade classes. 

Each high school selects their own group of 20 to 40 students to work with the Siena ambassadors. The group is often a diverse mix of cyberbully victims, bullies themselves, or student advocates against bullying. Siena ambassadors meet with the student groups and teach one-on-one about signs and prevention methods of cyberbullying through role-playing skits, workshops and peer-to-peer conversation. 

The focus of the training is on how students can go from becoming a “bystander”— someone who witnesses bullying on social media and online — to being an “upstander” and standing up against those attacking their peers online.

“It’s really a student-led program,” said Mr. Ruhl. High schoolers are more open to talking with college students, who they are closer to in age, than a teacher at the school, he said. 

Making a difference

Rebecca Goldstein, student coordinator and Upstander ambassador, said that the program has been a “very eye-opening” experience for her. Some high school students have cried during their group’s session, and others talked about how their bullying got so bad they contemplated suicide. 

“A lot of people open up to us,” she said. “We all understand where [the students] are coming from, and it helps them to talk to someone close in age.” 

During the Siena student’s latest trip to Capital Preparatory Harlem School, the ambassadors worked directly with a student known for cyberbullying and the bully’s victim. The following week, Mr. Ruhl said the school’s principal called the ambassadors to share that the two students had since resolved their issues, and even became friends, thanks to the Siena student’s visit. 

“This program does work, and we are making an impact,” said Mr. Ruhl. “Even if it’s for one kid, it’s worth it.”