Watchful, familiar faces
Volunteer organization sets up chapter in Fruita school
The Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut that took the lives of 20 first-graders led Fruita resident Ernest Griffiths to ask how he could help protect the school closest to his home, Shelledy Elementary.
The retired Alaska State Patrol trooper and former assistant jail superintendent felt he could put his background to use as a school volunteer focused on security. His timing was perfect.
Just that October, Shelledy became the first school in District 51 to host a chapter of the national program Watch D.O.G.S., which stands for Dads of Great Students. Dads, grandfathers and other male role models volunteer in the program at more than 2,600 schools in 43 states and Washington, D.C. Duties for the unarmed volunteers include searching schools for potential hazards, greeting kids in the lunch room, helping them get off buses and into class each morning, and reading or playing math games with students in the classroom.
Michael Hand, who has a daughter at Shelledy, brought Watch D.O.G.S. to the school after he moved back to Fruita in June following two years in Littleton. In Littleton, he volunteered during the 2011–12 school year in a Watch D.O.G.S. program at Governor’s Ranch, an elementary school that feeds into Columbine High School.
“It made complete and total sense to me,” Hand said of the program.
At first, Shelledy Principal Steve States wasn’t sure the school could afford the $350 start-up cost for the program or the $100 it costs to continue the program each year. But the school’s parent-teacher organization agreed to pay the tab.
About 25 men volunteer for the program. All have undergone a background check and pay $15 to purchase a T-shirt identifying them as Watch D.O.G.S. Hand said he likes helping kids feel safe and giving them someone to bond with at school.
“Sometimes kids don’t relate to a teacher but a dad may come in and say something they relate to and it changes their life,” Hand said. “When you get a kid that you don’t know hugging you and saying, ‘Thanks for being here,’ it brings tears to your eyes.”
The Watch D.O.G.S. also help the school fill in the gaps left by instructional assistants removed during the last four years of budget cuts, according to Shelledy Assistant Principal Margaret Hofer. She said the Watch D.O.G.S. provide an extra set of ears to listen to kids read and an extra set of eyes to watch the school. The fact that the program gives men a role in the building helps as well, she said.
“A lot of dads aren’t sure what to do in a school and this gives them something to do,” Hofer said.
Although she said she has never felt unsafe in the school, Hofer said she hopes Watch D.O.G.S. expands into all District 51 schools. So far, the program is being considered at Fruitvale Elementary and Orchard Mesa Middle School.
“We’ve seen the benefits. It provides a male role model, an extra set of eyes, and the kids love it,” Hofer said.
District 51 Safety and Transportation Director Tim Leon said he’s always in favor of more volunteers keeping watch in the schools, especially after budget cuts last school year dropped four out of eight campus liaison jobs from District 51 high schools. The liaisons have a job description similar to the Watch D.O.G.S.
Following the Sandy Hook shooting, Leon said there have been a variety of propositions for improving school safety, including having armed volunteers patrol schools, allowing teachers to carry guns in school, and inviting more school resource officers to be in more schools more often. Leon said it would take more state funding to afford that last suggestion.
“At this point, I think anything’s on the table,” he said.
Griffiths carried a gun at work in the past but said he feels more comfortable with the idea of unarmed volunteers like the Watch D.O.G.S.
“Having a gun here (at Shelledy) worries me,” he said.
Hand said the suggestions District 51 is receiving following Sandy Hook are so fresh he’s not sure what schools will decide and he doesn’t feel right suggesting an answer for them beyond more school resource officers where possible. Although he’s not sure Watch D.O.G.S. could have prevented something like the Connecticut shooting, Hand said the program is “part of the puzzle” of prevention.
“Is it scary? It absolutely is,” he said of school shootings. “I don’t think it’s panic time. I don’t think we need metal detectors in elementary schools. But we have to be proactive.”
Griffiths said he hopes something as simple as a kind word from a Watch D.O.G.S. volunteer will help a student report a shooting threat, reconsider committing a school shooting, or change their lives in a positive way so they never consider a school shooting at all.
“The fact the Watch D.O.G.S. are here may prevent it and we don’t even know it,” Griffiths said.