FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH
By ANDREW MCGINN
Is it spring break yet?
Already this school year, the elementary school had a kid run from teachers into a cornfield across the road (police were called), the middle school had a student assault a teacher and destroy a room (police were called) and the high school keeps having to confiscate vaping devices (police are called).
On Oct. 11, all three schools in Jefferson were placed on lockdown at the request of the sheriff’s office for fear that a family domestic dispute could spill over into one of the buildings.
And on top of it all, the year started with administration having to decide what to do about a 15-year-old Jefferson boy who posted a photo to Snapchat in July that he was “ready for school” — with eight guns in the picture.
In the words of an old rock ‘n’ roll song, “There’s something happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear.”
Whatever it is, the Watch D.O.G.S. hope to be part of the solution.
A group of local men has plans to bring the national Watch D.O.G.S. — Dads of Great Students — program to the Greene County Community School District to give students positive male role models and to provide teachers and principals with extra eyes and ears.
“I see it as such a needed program that’s not going to take a lot of effort,” said the Rev. Devin Wolters, pastor of First Baptist Church and the father of two children at Greene County Elementary School.
The K-12 program originated in 1998 at an elementary school in Springdale, Ark., and has since expanded to more than 6,450 schools across the country.
The concept is simple enough — fathers, grandfathers, uncles and other father figures, each sporting a Watch D.O.G.S. shirt they buy for themselves for $11.95, volunteer for an entire day at school.
They can be used to read with children, work on flash cards and just be of general assistance to teachers who seem to be confronted with larger class sizes.
“Women are already in there,” Wolters, 35, said. “It’s time that men step up.”
The program is an initiative of the National Center for Fathering, a nonprofit established in 1990 to address the impact of fatherlessness in America — an epidemic it says is associated with nearly every societal ill.
“I think it’s a great concept to get adults into the buildings with kids,” said Shawn Zanders, principal at Greene County Middle School.
“Mothers provide benefits. Fathers provide benefits,” Zanders added. “They’re oftentimes different benefits.”
The idea of bringing Watch D.O.G.S. to Greene County originated with Dennis Hendricks, 62, a 1975 graduate of Jefferson Community High School and a 17-year veteran of the Army who retired from trucking after a stroke in 2015.
“This has got to be something we can do,” Hendricks remembers thinking when he first learned about Watch D.O.G.S.
It’s been several years since Hendricks pitched the program to the school board. But by his own admission, he’s no good at organizing and fundraising.
“I found out about it,” he explained, “but couldn’t get going.”
Even so, he refused to abandon the idea, taking it this past spring to a meeting of the Greene County Clergy Association.
Listening intently was Wolters, whose sister-in-law in Washington state is the counselor at an elementary school with a Watch D.O.G.S. program.
Wolters also happened to grow up without a father in his life.
“I would have loved for a caring adult to come to the school, learn my name and spend time,” Wolters said. “A simple high-five can go so far in someone’s life.”
Wolters pledged to help, and the clergy association pledged $200 in seed money to get the program started.
It costs $500 for the Watch D.O.G.S. startup kit. Getting the program into all three local schools would require a separate startup kit for each building tailored to the different ages of students, Wolters said.
They’re looking to raise the remaining $300 to get the program off and running at Greene County Elementary, with the hope to expand from there.
“We’re putting our toes in the water to see how warm the water is,” Hendricks said.
An informational meeting in October at Wolters’ church drew a small group of interested men.
Hendricks, who is taking on the role of village elder, growing out a beard as impressive as anything out of the Book of Exodus, acknowledges they won’t be acting as law enforcement.
Rather, they’ll be on hand to help with things like art projects, all while modeling behavior and offering words of support.
Hendricks knows firsthand how a man’s presence can shape a child’s life.
The father of four girls, he nevertheless once answered a call for Little League baseball coaches. A few years ago at Bell Tower Festival, one of his former players, now grown, walked up to him.
“He came to me and said, ‘Because of you, I’m the man I am today,’ ” Hendricks said. “I about fell over.”
Children without a father in their lives — whether that father is physically absent or emotionally absent — face an uphill battle.
They’re more likely to live in poverty, use drugs and alcohol, and have lower test scores.
And that’s just to start.
Seventy percent of adolescents in juvenile correctional facilities are from fatherless homes, according to the National Center for Fathering, while 80 percent of adolescents in psychiatric hospitals are from fatherless homes.
They’re 11 times more likely to have violent behavior, and 20 times more likely to be incarcerated.
Kids are more difficult now than at anytime in recent history, according to Zanders, who said they’re modeling society’s breakdown in public discourse.
He called the Oct. 12 rampage at the middle school by a 10-year-old male student, that sent a teacher to the emergency room with minor injuries, an outlier.
“That’s by no means standard practice here,” Zanders said.
But that’s not to say everything is fine.
“It’s enough of a concern for the staff and for me that we’ve made trying to improve student behavior one of our goals for the year,” he said.
Greene County educators are facing uphill battles of their own.
Despite being a close-knit county of little more than 9,000 people, Greene County is faced with a number of urban-level woes.
While violent crime remains solidly low in Greene County, the county is a potential powder keg.
More Greene County children (17 percent) are in poverty than the state average (15 percent).
At 22.7 percent, the overall poverty rate in two towns alone (Grand Junction and Churdan) surpasses the poverty levels of Des Moines (19 percent), Sioux City (15 percent) and Fort Dodge (18 percent).
Greene County’s teen birth rate is higher than the state average, and the graduation rate at Greene County High School is lower.
There’s also an utter dearth of mental health providers, with one provider for every 1,500 people.
The state average is one provider for every 760 people, while the places considered among the healthiest in the United States have one mental health provider for every 330 people.
For those reasons and others, Greene County was ranked the 83rd healthiest county of the state’s 99 counties in this year’s annual County Health Rankings, compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
For better or for worse, schools in Greene County have a student population diverse in socioeconomics.
“All of that impacts motivation for school and the perceived benefit of school,” Zanders said.
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 has the highest percentage of adults (13.6 percent) living with four or more ACEs than any of the six surrounding counties. (Webster County is the next highest, with 12.2 percent, while Calhoun and Carroll counties have the lowest rates, at 6.8 percent and 7.3 percent, respectively.)
In fact, Greene County has 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.
“Here’s an opportunity to influence children as they’re growing,” Wolters said of Watch D.O.G.S.
“This could be a very easy way to put a positive role model in their life.”
For more information about Watch D.O.G.S. or to get involved, email the Rev. Devin Wolters at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Dennis Hendricks at 515-370-4893.