Santa Monica College student athletes are "Lunch Buddies" for middle school students on the campus of John Adams Middle School on Monday, September 26, 2016 in Santa Monica, Calif. MANDATORY CREDIT Photo by Amy Gaskin

On a recent afternoon, student-athletes from Santa Monica College had a specific mission as they arrived at John Adams Middle School for lunch.

Andy Naidu, a pre-med student and men’s soccer player, sat at a table and watched as one youngster flipped a water bottle. Nearby, basketball players Isaiah Ajiboye and Jhamad Norwood interacted with other JAMS students. And women’s soccer player Natalie Rey hung out with 12-year-old Christian Smith.

Smith’s mother, a parent volunteer, helped launch what organizers hope is a weekly program through which SMC students visit local public schools at lunchtime, making sure to spend time with children who might otherwise be found eating alone.

The program is an unofficial supplement to the Santa Monica-Malibu school district’s push to promote safe and welcoming environments on all of its campuses, where curbing bullying has become a priority for education officials.

SMMUSD last year rolled out the Olweus anti-bullying program at all of its sites except Santa Monica High School, which uses Restorative Justice programming.

The Olweus program, which has been adopted at thousands of schools across the country, involves training staff in prevention techniques, establishing school policies and facilitating student discussions about bullying.

It also suggests that excluding a fellow student from a particular group or activity can be considered bullying.

“To reduce bullying, it is important to change the climate of the school and the social norms with regard to bullying,” a program outline reads. “It must become normative for staff and students to notice and respond when a child is bullied or left out.”

The anti-bullying efforts are gaining momentum as the district attempts to close longstanding achievement gaps. SMMUSD officials have said that promoting safe school environments could help in boosting the self-esteem of low-income and minority students, who perform below their peers on numerous success metrics.

Tara Brown, the district’s director of student services, said at a recent Board of Education meeting that she and her colleagues will be teaching students what to do when they see bullying. Teachers, counselors, office personnel and custodial staffers will also need training.

“We really take it seriously,” she said. “That is one of the goals of student services this year: implement an anti-bullying curriculum.”

The anti-bullying initiatives are taking root after several high-profile incidents in the district. The issue reached a boiling point in 2011, when an African-American student at Samohi alleged that two students chained him to a locker near the wrestling room. That prompted a campus visit by professional football player DeSean Jackson, who has supported anti-bullying efforts.

More recently, a former SMMUSD parent penned an open letter to the Daily Press about the alleged prolonged bullying of her son by other JAMS students.

“I ask the community of Santa Monica: What are you going to do about this?” she wrote. “I know that my son is not the only boy or girl who has experienced this. We have got to be better than this.”

This fall, SMC students are trying to promote a positive lunchtime culture at JAMS. They also plan on visiting Will Rogers Learning Community and Grant Elementary School.