BELGRADE — Two months before the Newtown school shooting tragedy, a national organization that formed in response to another school shooting in 1998 established a chapter at Belgrade Central School.
The group, which puts volunteer fathers into schools as “Watch DOGS” — Dads Of Great Students — is the only one of its kind in New England, despite establishing 2,600 chapters in 42 states, according to local organizer Chris Rhoda.
The program was begun to reduce school violence, but its greatest effect has been connecting fathers to schools and providing male role models in a setting that women traditionally have dominated.
Most days, Rhoda is working in an office at Thomas College, where he is the vice president of information services.
But when he volunteers as a Watch Dog, he plays many roles in the eyes of the elementary school children — mentor, hero, security guard, playmate, teaching assistant, friend and father.
On Friday, pairs of first-graders chatting in the hallway stopped, mid-sentence, and watched him walk past, dressed in jeans and a Watch Dogs T-shirt. As a line of students headed outside for a post-lunch recess break, each one gave Rhoda a high-five. A small boy, fidgeting until his Scooby Doo lunchbox banged against his legs, begged Rhoda to join him in building a snow fort.
It’s all part of a schedule set for Rhoda by the school. Throughout the day, he greets students as they leave buses and cars to enter the school; volunteers in four classrooms; monitors bathrooms, lunchrooms and the playground; and says goodbye to the children as they leave. In his back pocket, he carries a pack of purple pencils that inform the lucky recipients that they are great students.
The staff members like him, too. Wherever he goes, he is an extra set of hands, ears and eyes looking out for the children’s well-being.
When Rhoda squeezed himself into a lunch table made for smaller bodies, his 7-year-old daughter, Emily, sitting beside him, beamed.
“I like to spend the extra time with him,” she confided after he left.
Classmate Emma Lee Sanborn called to her from a few seats down.
“You’re so lucky,” she said.
Like many of the children asked, Emma Lee had a hard time articulating exactly what it is that they like about the presence of Rhoda and the other men in the program.
“When there’s a Watch Dog here, I think of my dad,” said Isabell Frost, 9.
Diana Glasheen, a reading tutor at the school, said the children just appreciate the variety that a male presence in their classroom offers.
“The kids aren’t used to seeing a lot of dads here,” she said. “They’re exposed to moms more.”
She said children do feel safer, but that it’s more than that.
“It’s just a whole different perspective,” she said. “Dads treat them differently.”
Rhoda said he enjoys helping the students, whether it’s reading to them, being read to by them, or helping to enforce rules of politeness at recess.
“It’s just like I’m with my kids, but instead of two there are 300 of them,” he said.
Sometimes the first moments can be awkward, according to Glasheen.
“The girls are a little bashful at first,” she said. “A couple of the dads aren’t used to interacting with the kids as much.”
By the end of the day, though, the fathers are sold on the positive experience, and the children are giving out unsolicited hugs as they leave the school.
That’s what the program seems to do so well — bring men into a school setting, a pairing that benefits all involved.
Rhoda, who has volunteered at the school in the past by himself, started the program a few months ago.
He learned about Watch Dogs while watching a news segment on television and decided to start a chapter of his own. After talking with the school principal, he followed the organization’s guidelines by inviting the father of every student at Belgrade to a pizza party.
The response was overwhelming.
“It was standing room only in the cafeteria,” he said.
Rhoda showed a video pitching the program to 100 fathers in attendance. About three dozen fathers signed up to volunteer, although not all of them have been able to serve yet.
“Most dads have to take an unpaid day off of work to do this,” Rhoda said.
Rhoda said the school, parent groups and restaurants helped him with the expenses, which include a Watch Dogs startup kit for a few hundred dollars and the cost of the pizza party.
Today, 16 volunteers have provided a presence during the majority of school days over the past two months. Some have come just one day, but most have covered multiple days. One father has volunteered eight times, according to Rhoda.
The national Watch Dogs program was founded by a father named Jim Moore in the wake of a school shooting in Jonesboro, Ark., in 1998. Moore began the program because he thought that having adult men in the school would improve security and reduce violence.
In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, the national office released a statement that said the program “does not pretend to be a deterrent to an act so monstrous that it defies comprehension.”
While the organization was formed in response to a school shooting, Rhoda said that in rural Maine, an added security presence is a very small part of what he does.
“Belgrade, Maine, is much different from Boston, Massachusetts,” he said. “On some campuses, the Watchdog dads are sort of patrolling hallways or outside areas. In Belgrade, we don’t worry about that stuff.”
Rhoda said the Newtown tragedy could alter the perception of the program.
“Obviously, if there was an incident, it would be helpful to have another adult there,” he said.
Gary Smith, superintendent of Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18, which includes Belgrade, said the district looks at the program as a way to increase overall parental involvement, not a security force.
“At our elementary schools, some parents are in our schools all the time; but other parents are less connected, and maybe this would be a way to get them connected,” Smith said.
Smith said that the district’s Messalonskee High School Principal Jon Moody wants to expand the program into his school.
For Rhoda — and many fathers — the biggest appeal of the program is a chance to be with his daughter when he is fresh and energetic, rather than at the end of a long workday.
If the program hasn’t spread to the district’s middle school by the time his daughter attends, he said he will start another chapter himself.
“As long as she wants me to be at her school, I’ll want that, too,” he said.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287