Neighborhood Defense: Watchful Eyes, Caring Hearts
Motelewa Smith, a senior at Glen Oaks High School in Baton Rouge, La., remembers well the tense atmosphere that often shrouded the school during his freshman year.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"You couldn't have a lot of meetings for the whole school because it would be so crowded, and tempers would flare, and a fight would start," says Motelewa, a parliamentarian in the student government. "If teachers didn't break it up, it would just go on until they got tired of fighting."
To avoid such incidents, administrators canceled pep rallies, dances, and talent shows - a solution that satisfied no one. Then Tommy Stout, a parent, came up with a better idea. He recruited a dozen fathers, many of whom work shifts and are home during the day, to be a calming presence in the school, walking the halls, monitoring the cafeteria, and attending major school activities. The program, called Security Dads, is modeled after one that began in Indianapolis five years ago.
"We don't try to take the place of the school security," Mr. Stout explains. "We're just a group of dads who want to get involved and help save our children."
Across the country, that earnest desire to keep children safe and prevent violence is motivating concerned parents and community members to band together in a variety of efforts. Some are as simple as walking children to and from school. Others involve school-based groups such as Security Dads, neighborhood watches, and after-school programs.
Armed with nothing more than caring hearts and compassionate spirits, volunteers find strength in the collective power of many watchful eyes and listening ears. Some also serve as helping hands to traditional authority figures such as school administrators and police officers.
Because groups like these are so varied, no figures exist to measure their numbers. And ironically, the groups are springing up even when threats are minimal. Although statistics indicate that crime is down, "there is a widespread perception of lack of safety" fed by news stories, TV shows, and movies, says Samuel Mark, assistant vice president of civic and community relations at the University of Southern California. "I feel that the perception of violence is much worse than the actual reality," he says.
At Glen Oaks High School, the Security Dads, who now number about 50, have made an impressive difference. Social activities have resumed, and the school "has turned around 110 percent," says Stout, who spends about 20 hours a week there.
"We haven't had any serious problems in two years," adds Stan LeBlanc, principal. "It's been a godsend. They're just a super bunch to have on campus."
For students, many of whom live in single-parent homes, the fathers' presence goes beyond maintaining order. "When you're down and you need somebody to talk to, you can always to talk to Security Dads," says Smith, the student parliamentarian.
And talk they do. "Students can confide in the Dads better than they can in us, even telling them stuff they want us to find out," says LeBlanc.
So successful is the program that it has expanded to three high schools in Baton Rouge and two others in the state.
Creating a safe environment at school represents only one solution, of course. In Los Angeles, neighbors surrounding the University of Southern California's University Park campus have taken another approach - keeping their eyes on children as they walk to and from school. Volunteers in a program called Kid Watch often spend time outdoors from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.
"I'm usually outside, working in my garden, reading on the porch, or talking to my neighbors," says Juanita Judice, a volunteer.
Although most of the 63 approved Kid Watch sites are homes, the group is also recruiting businesses, churches, and nonprofit agencies. Children receive an orientation at school, along with a wallet card listing emergency numbers.
Dr. Mark offers one measure of the program's effectiveness: "We hear from the Los Angeles Police Department that they get many fewer calls for problems in streets where we have a lot of Kid Watch volunteers," he says. "People feel Kid Watch is having an effect on driving away crime."