As Conway school district officials mull how to improve school safety, one program has quietly taken off at all nine district elementary schools.
Men volunteers, called Watch D.O.G.S., or Dads of Great Students, are "making the children feel a little more safe" by being in the schools, checking doors and walking hallways and volunteering to help teachers, said Jeff Johnston, who is a leading dad at Carolyn Lewis Elementary School.
Johnston started volunteering about five years ago when his older daughter, now in middle school, was in first grade.
Carolyn Lewis principal Tina Antley said children are safer because of the fathers, step-fathers and grandfathers at the school.
"The more eyes and ears you have watching for weak points and helping out at recess the better," Antley said. "The more helping hands, the safer we are."
School officials nationwide are looking to beef up safety at schools in the wake of the school shooting in Connecticut that left 20 schoolchildren dead this past December.
This past week also marks 15 years since a school shooting at Jonesboro left five dead.
Watchdog started up because of the Jonesboro shooting, said Eric Snow, executive director of the national dads program. The group is now under National Center for Fathering in Kansas.
In the past few years, the dads programs starting up in schools has skyrocketed, up to nearly 3,000 currently, Snow said.
Johnston has at least 60 dads at Carolyn Lewis alone, he said. The school district doesn’t centrally track how many volunteers it has in schools, said K.K. Bradshaw, Administrative Services director.
The national program was founded on safety, but it wasn’t meant to be security detail, Snow said. Volunteers are male role models for kids, he said.
"Watchdogs has really turned into an educational program," Snow said. "Men have a very unique and powerful role in the development of a child especially in education."
Johnston, who volunteers in Carolyn Lewis where his 8-year-old daughter goes to school, said he often reads to students or helps with homework.
Locally, school officials are talking about new ways to increase safety, including background checks and more cameras. But at least one board member said nothing is off the table when it comes to safety, which could open the door for more officers at schools.
Superintendent Greg Murry has said repeatedly the schools are safe.
Johnston said children feel safer seeing the dads in their school.
The dads keep an eye out for anything strange, he said. They "help make it more a secure place," he said.
Antley said about half the schools in the district had the dads program.
Johnston wants to expand the program into middle schools — particularly to Carl Stuart Middle School where his oldest daughter goes.
"For me, I love that feeling of being able to make a difference in these kids’ lives," he said.
Officials at the school say the dads program is so popular that a dad comes to the school about twice a week. Counselor Jamie Fisher said one dad plans to come Monday and one Friday next week.
School officials said when dads come, children get excited. Johnston said the program is a wonderful way for dads to get to spend time with their children.
"(My daughter) wants to show me off to her friends," Johnston said. "She really looks forward to it."
Dads get excited about going to school too, Johnston said. Just showing up shows his daughter and other children that he cares, he said.
"You go home feeling happy," he said.
(Staff writer Scarlet Sims can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 505-1246. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)