Students’ eyes lit up as BJ Edwards approached their lunch table.
“I know him,” one yelled.
Clad in a black “Dads on Duty” t-shirt and a baseball cap, Edwards has become a regular lunchtime visitor at Rigby Middle School, one of at least 10 volunteer dads participating in a program aimed at connecting kids to local male role models.
The program follows two tough years for students and educators at the school beset by a global pandemic and a shooting that last summer left two students and a custodian injured. A teacher at the school garnered national praise for disarming the suspected sixth-grade shooter … with a hug.
Five months later, police arrested another student with a gun at the school. No shots were fired.
The ordeals, coupled with the challenges of COVID-19, thrust students’ mental health and social well-being to the forefront of conversation — and prompted school safety coordinator Whitney Wagoner to jumpstart the program.
Wagoner heard of a similar effort in another state and liked it. It felt like a no-brainer, principal Richard Howard told EdNews, so the district sent out an email asking dads to sign up.
Those hoping to participate undergo a background check, get a t-shirt and get on the calendar for Tuesday and Wednesday lunchtime visits.
The program’s not a security measure, Wagoner stressed, though some students have said they feel safer when the men are there.
So why dads?
District spokeswoman Monica Pauley said the program offers a changeup from the higher number of local moms who participate in other programs like PTA and other volunteer roles in the district. The lunchtime emphasis is a good fit for a higher number of local dads who hold down day jobs.
There’s no formal training for Dads on Duty, and participants are encouraged to simply be a friend.
For Ernie Chavez, a local dad and assistant wrestling coach at the school, that means saying hi to a student eating lunch alone, or checking in with a wrestler whose grades are slipping.
“We had a nice little talk,” said Chavez, with one arm around seventh-grade wrestler Taysen Gasser, who acknowledged a recent slip in his GPA. Now, Gasser said, he has all A’s and B’s so he can stay on the wrestling team.
Chavez, 62, tells the kids he’s 29, but they know better.
“He’s old,” one student yelled.
Chavez is “fun,” said seventh-grader Cody Dance, “but he can get on your case.”
Other students appreciate simple gestures from the men. Eighth grader Dieter Short watches for one dad who always brings Tootsie Rolls, “the fruity kind” Short likes best.
And other kids simply enjoy building on connections they already have with some of the men.
Edwards and eighth-grader Laiku Pouha are neighbors. Pouha “already knew” Edwards was “really kind” because he invited the middle schooler’s family over for dinner once and they go to the same church.
Wagoner said connections like those can help the school fulfill another goal in the wake of the shooting and COVID: bridging divides that can spring up between public schools and their patrons.
“It’s helping,” she said.