Neighborhood Defense: Watchful Eyes, Caring Hearts

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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"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."

Even before Kid Watch began, Norma Montgomery, the mother of three daughters, maintained vigilance in the neighborhood. "I caught two young guys trying to steal a Raiders jacket from a little boy one time," she says. "I yelled at them, and they ran away."

In another incident three years ago, Mrs. Montgomery stood up to nearly 20 gang members who appeared uninvited at a block party. "I just confronted them and told them they were welcome to join the party, but we would have none of their gang activities," she says. "I asked them their names, and they told me. They sat down, and we served them food. Then they thanked us and left."

The following August, the young men returned, bringing friends with them. "They were just so nice," Montgomery recalls. "You wouldn't know they were the same gang members."

Speaking of her decision to confront the teenagers, she adds, "I know some people would say that's a silly thing to do. But there comes a time in your life when you have to stand up for what you believe is right."

In other cities, the national McGruff House Safety Program offers children similar protection by establishing neighborhood homes as reliable sources of help if they are threatened, hurt, or lost. Participating homes display a sign featuring McGruff the Crime Dog.

Betty Kostelac, a McGruff House volunteer in Kansas City, Mo., says, "It's just a matter of being a good citizen to everyone."

Mrs. Kostelac, who is retired, sees another long-term advantage. "Those children, as they grow up, are going to realize that they too can help someday by doing this sort of thing," she says.

Such programs are not without challenges. In Kansas City, efforts to recruit McGruff House volunteers have been slower than leaders expected. Roxane Johnson, coordinator of community outreach for the Kansas City school district, finds that some people are reluctant to undergo a police check - a standard requirement in many such programs.

Another city effort has been "McGruff Trucks," or designated utility trucks. "If kids see a utility truck with that logo, they know to go up to that truck if they're in trouble," says Ms. Johnson. "The driver will use a mobile phone to call for help. That gives us thousands more outlets."

After-school programs also play a role in keeping children safe. Some programs, such as those in Trenton, N.J., are held in schools. Others are smaller-scale.

Until last year, for example, the 300-home Raineshaven neighborhood in Memphis had many latchkey children simply "hanging out" after school. So Estelle Paulette and Queen Smith created the Raineshaven Youth Council. Meeting in the neighborhood's Golden United Methodist Church, they hold workshops on such topics as gangs and sexual awareness. They also take students on outings.

In the neighborhoods served by Kid Watch in Los Angeles, group outings serve another purpose. "We're trying to get children to use the parks, three wonderful museums in the area, and the library, but sometimes they hesitate because of the fear of something happening to them," says Mark.

Kid Watch staff members give parents and children tours of museums, a sports arena, and the university. They also map out "safe routes" for children to use.

Whatever the community's endeavor, Annette Kessler, principal of the L.B. Weemes Elementary School in Los Angeles, sees the potential for a ripple effect.

"You get this little circle of people feeling good, and they help other people to feel good and safe," she says. "The good feelings people have about their community start to provide security to more and more people. It outweighs the impact of the very few negative people who right now indirectly control the neighborhood by making you stay behind locked doors."

WHERE TO FIND MORE INFORMATION

* McGruff House Safety Programs, National Crime Prevention Council, 1700 K Street, NW, Second Floor, Washington, DC 20006-3817. Phone: 202-466-6272.

*

Security Dads, Inc. 4419 Barnor Drive, Indianapolis, IN 46226. Phone: 317-549-3553; 317-226-3848.

*"Promising Initiatives for Addressing School Violence," April 1995 (US General Accounting Office, Washington). To order by phone, call: 202-512-6000

*"Waging Peace in Our Schools," Linda Lantieri and Janet Patti (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

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