There are times during a busy school day when administrators, teachers and school resource officers surely wish they had eyes in the back of their heads. At Newton-Conover Middle School in Newton, N.C., they do – only those eyes belong to the volunteers of the school’s F.A.M.I.L.Y. program.
The parent volunteers of F.A.M.I.L.Y., which stands for Families Actively Making Improvements and Leading Youth, have been serving as extra eyes around the school for the past five years, since shortly after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012. Easily identifiable in their neon green shirts, the volunteers start their day by meeting with School Resource Officer Danny Baker, who gives them a heads-up on any activities or visitors planned for the day. Then, throughout the day, they serve as extra eyes and ears around the school while they help out with car and bus duty, walk the halls between classes and patrol the grounds. F.A.M.I.L.Y. volunteers can watch classrooms if teachers need to step out for a few minutes and they spend time in the cafeteria during lunch. They escort visitors when requested, help out with seating and parking at sporting events, and always try to serve as positive role models for the school’s approximately 650 students, says Mark Pennell, school board chair for Newton-Conover City Schools and one of the group’s co-founders.
“We started F.A.M.I.L.Y. because we thought if more parents got involved, it would be less likely that an event like Sandy Hook would happen in a community,” Pennell says. “We’re there to be someone the kids can look up to and know that we care about them, and someone talk to if they need it. We’re there to help the teachers and our SRO any way that we can. We look at ourselves as the foot soldiers on the ground who are providing more eyes on the campus.”
Pennell says that all volunteers undergo a thorough background check, and although they have no formal training program, they have “on-the-job” experience and work closely with Baker when it comes to what to do during a lockdown or fire drill, and other ways in which they can provide support. For example, during the recent National Day of Action Against Violence in Schools, he mounted a nearby knoll and kept a watchful eye on the students during their 17 minutes outside. And although he’s very glad there have been no incidents at Newton-Conover, Pennell says the volunteers have found unlocked doors, broken locks, and boxes and coolers on the grounds in places where they didn’t belong.
While F.A.M.I.L.Y. started with a large wave of enthusiasm in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, membership has declined, and Pennell is looking for ways to recruit more volunteers, telling parents even if they can only help for 30 minutes in the cafeteria at lunchtime, they can still be a role model and make a difference. The district would also like to expand the volunteer pool so to cover its four elementary schools, and then the high schools down the road. Pennell says they also have plans to take the program nationally, as they are working with a grantwriter and have plans to develop a website and trademark the program name.
“We’d like to get the word about this out there so that the idea catches on at more schools. We’d like to provide information on what F.A.M.I.L.Y. should be and how they can get a program started in their area,” he says. “The only thing it costs the volunteers is time.”
He adds, “Everybody talks about what to do to keep students safe. This is so simple, you start with a basic t-shirt and individuals who will keep an eye out for anything that might be wrong. The main thing is, we care about the kids.”
For more information about F.A.M.I.L.Y., visit the Newton-Conover Middle School website at https://nms.newton-conover.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=340135&type=d&pREC_ID=747064, or F.A.M.I.L.Y. information officer Kyle Culpepper at (828) 582-1552.