ALL HANDS ON DECK
By ANDREW MCGINN
After 20 years in law enforcement, Jeff Cunningham can’t help but wonder how different life may have been for the person in his back seat if only an adult had shown interest in them growing up.
“Maybe it would have changed their path,” Cunningham, 42, theorized recently.
A homegrown state trooper who got his start as a Jefferson police officer and Greene County sheriff’s deputy, Cunningham saw the potential almost immediately last school year of the Watch D.O.G.S. — Dads of Great Students — program at Greene County elementary and middle schools.
He was one of its first volunteers.
“You’re helping to shape these kids,” he said.
Cunningham has since been tapped to lead the program, which is being restructured and rebranded for a new school year.
The male-only Watch D.O.G.S. is no more. In its place is R.A.M.S., or Responsible Adults Mentoring Students, open to all caring adults in the community.
“We know through research there are voids in these kids’ lives,” said Shawn Zanders, principal at Greene County Middle School. “There’s no research that says having too many role models is negative.”
As a K-12 initiative of the National Center for Fathering, Watch D.O.G.S. was open only to fathers, grandfathers, uncles and other father figures as a way of providing students with positive male role models. Volunteer Watch D.O.G.S. spent the day at school helping out as needed and acting as extra eyes and ears.
The national program was welcomed last year with open arms by local administrators and teachers.
“There’s a serious dad depravation in our society right now,” Zanders said, adding that at least a third of his middle-schoolers live in single-parent households.
Adolescents without dads at home are 11 times more likely to be violent, according to the National Center for Fathering, and 20 times more likely to be incarcerated.
But the reality is, in Greene County, there weren’t enough D.O.G.S. to cover every day of school — and at two schools to boot.
Enter R.A.M.S., a completely local twist on Watch D.O.G.S. open to men and women alike.
“We don’t want to let the men off the hook. It’s a different kind of influence,” said the Rev. Devin Wolters, pastor at First Baptist Church who served as the program’s “Top Dog” its inaugural year.
He’s handing the program over to Cunningham, now the “Big Horn.”
“Jeff’s been behind this program from the get-go,” Wolters said.
They hope to have an adult volunteer at both schools every day.
“It worked out well when we had people to do it,” Zanders said. “We need more people. We need more consistency.”
Volunteers spend the day working one-on-one with students, patrolling the hallways and, at the elementary school, opening those tricky cartons of milk for kids at breakfast and lunch.
“We had a lot of great dads step up,” Wolters said, “but the need was greater than the participation.”
He also heard from mothers, grandmothers and aunts who wished they could have participated.
Zanders is happy to have all hands on deck.
“Who owns what goes on here? It’s the taxpayers and the adults of the community,” Zanders said. “To say we don’t have an open-door policy seems a little counterproductive.”
Adults who want to volunteer are subject to a background check. It’s hoped that money from sponsors will pay for each participant’s background check and T-shirt, according to Wolters.
Zanders said the middle school as a whole is hoping for increased parental involvement this school year and beyond.
“We aren’t going to be as good as we’re going to be until we get more participation from parents,” he said. “We want you here.”
Arguably, the need has never been greater.
Local students last year in grades 6, 8 and 11 took the Iowa Youth Survey, sponsored by the Iowa Department of Public Health.
More than half of eighth-graders (53 percent) answered that classroom teachers had to stop teaching three or more times in the last 30 days to deal with a major student disruption or behavior problem. Nearly 80 percent of local sixth-graders reported teachers stopping class one or more times to deal with a disruptive student.
Zanders describes students as a “micromeasure of society.”
And we all know about the state of society.
Nearly a quarter of last year’s eighth graders answered on the Iowa Youth Survey that they’d given serious thought to killing themselves in the past 12 months.
Even more alarming is a 2016 report on childhood trauma by the Central Iowa ACEs 360 Coalition, which includes the Iowa departments of education and public health, the University of Iowa, UnityPoint Health, Mercy Medical Center and others.
Using data collected between 2012 and 2014, the report looked at eight types of childhood trauma, or ACEs — Adverse Childhood Experiences — including physical, emotional and sexual abuse and other forms of household dysfunction, ranging from a family member with mental illness and substance abuse in the home to separation/divorce.
Greene County had the highest percentage of adults (13.6 percent) living with four or more ACEs than any of the six surrounding counties. (Webster County was the next highest, with 12.2 percent, while Calhoun and Carroll counties had the lowest rates, at 6.8 percent and 7.3 percent, respectively.)
In fact, Greene County had a higher percentage of adults who were traumatized as children than four of the five most populous counties in Iowa. (Only the state’s largest county, Polk County, had a higher rate than Greene County, with 14.1 percent.)
Those same adults — many of whom conceivably have children attending school — are 3.6 times more likely to have serious job problems, are 2.3 times more likely to report serious financial problems and are 2½ times more likely to rate their mental health as not good.
Perhaps as a result, Greene County has a higher rate of children in poverty than the Iowa average, along with a higher teen birth rate, according to statistics analyzed by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
Cunningham, for one, beat the odds.
Growing up, his mom married six times. He credits several local adults, including a Little League coach, with steering him down the right path toward a wife, two daughters and a career.
“Something steered my path,” he said, “because it wasn’t really my parents.”
Cunningham has been with the Iowa State Patrol since 2005.
It says a lot about the state of society that somebody would rather be out patrolling the highways than the hallways.
“I look at his job,” he said of Zanders. “I wouldn’t want that.”
How to get involved
For questions about the new R.A.M.S. — Responsible Adults Mentoring Students — program at Greene County elementary and middle schools, email Jeff Cunningham at email@example.com, or Devin Wolters at firstname.lastname@example.org.