Michael La’Fitte II doesn’t have much time to talk these days.
When he’s not running his upscale men’s clothing business in Shreveport, Louisiana, or leading the local NAACP chapter, he’s “on duty” at Southwood High School, leading a group of about 40 concerned fathers who have kept watch on campus after a spate of gang fights sparked the arrests of 23 students this fall.
He’s frequently “running into a meeting” about launching Dads on Duty USA as a nonprofit to help other schools and districts that want to follow their example.
“I’m one of those guys that when I jump on board on something, I’m all the way in,” he said. “Right now, I need to be all the way in on Dads on Duty.”
He’s poring over the fine print in the group’s comprehensive plan and juggling calls from school officials, Congressional staffers and even representatives of actor Will Smith — all drawn to the story of how the fathers’ strong presence at the school prevented further violence.
Last month, Smith paid roughly $24,000 to send Southwood’s 1,400 students to the opening of “King Richard,” his film about Shreveport native Richard Williams, father of tennis greats Venus and Serena.
The dads’ work has drawn praise from diverse voices, from charter school superintendent and podcaster Ray Ankrum — who started a Twitter thread celebrating Black fathers — to conservative Congressman Josh Hawley of Missouri, who highlighted how the dads “changed the atmosphere of an entire campus.”
The Southwood fathers are now fielding requests from over 100 schools and colleges across the country, while still maintaining their daily shift rotation at the school.
Their story resonates with “so many because of the negative tropes associated with Black dads not being involved in the lives of their children,” Ankrum said in an email. “It made me proud to know that the work that Black dads do under the radar is finally receiving acknowledgment.”
The fathers might not have gotten very far if Principal Kim Pendleton hadn’t welcomed their assistance. They met with her on Sunday, Sept. 19, troubled by fights that had gotten out of control.
“We were boots on the ground that next day,” La’Fitte said. “Our boots have not left.”
Craig Lee, a community organizer and city council candidate, is advising the group as it expands nationally. He’s enlisting the support of the broader community, including clergy, business leaders and alumni of the school.
“You have to get into the mind of a potential criminal before he or she commits a crime and show them a different way,” Lee said.
He suggests that one reason the program has been effective is that the fathers were already involved at the school. One ran the band boosters. Another often bought pizzas for the football team.
“The way this thing jumped off was based on the relationships that these fathers have with the principal. That’s how we got in.”
He said he was contacted by a Southwood staff member who was concerned about escalating gang tensions on campus. He wanted La’Fitte, who has a daughter in 11th grade at the school, to take the lead on the community’s response because he already knew other parents at the school.
Truck Drivers, Construction Workers, Chefs
The fathers — truck drivers and construction workers, chefs and financial advisers — greet students as they come and go and talk to them about alternatives to gang culture. They want students involved in the arts and youth entrepreneurship.
They plan to bring tutoring and conflict resolution programs to the school, Lee said. But there are some things they won’t do.
“We don’t break up fights,” La’Fitte said. “Our men are instructed: ‘You put your hands in your pockets and you step back.’”
The dads haven’t been able to prevent all incidents. In mid-November, one girl hit another with a chair.
Lee said some of the dads were actually in Las Vegas at the time, making a presentation about their program. Besides, the incident took place in a classroom, which doesn’t fall under the dads’ purview, Pendleton said.
Charnae McDonald, a spokeswoman for the Caddo Parish Public Schools, which includes Southwood, described the incident as isolated and said there have not been any large fights since the dads got involved.
During the initial wave of violence, the district assigned two resource officers to the school. They’ve since dropped it back to one.
The district, she said, is now developing a training process, including background checks to screen potential volunteers, for other schools in the district that want to start their own Dads on Duty program.
“We didn’t just put a group together and think it was going to work,” Pendleton said. “Now we’ve got the kids accustomed to the dads being with us, so let’s get to work.”
Since the dads got involved, La’Fitte said he has talked to two of the students who were part of the Sept. 16 melee that saw 14 students led away in handcuffs.
They apologized, but he told them there was no need. He remembers what it was like to be a “teenager who knows everything about nothing,” he said. “They yearn for adults who will treat them with respect.”
Dads are often looking for respect from schools, too, said Eric Snow. He co-founded WatchDOGS (Dads of Great Students), a K-12 program for fathers in roughly 6,500 schools in 47 states.
“Schools would always say, ‘Parents, parents, parents,’ but only the moms show up,” said Snow. “We’re trying to knock down the barriers that keep those dads from coming in.”
The program, based in Springdale, Arkansas, was a response to the 1998 shooting across the state in a Jonesboro middle school, in which four students and one teacher were killed.
“It really rocked us. It was the year before Columbine,” said Snow, who had children in elementary school at the time.
Schools that participate in WatchDOGS have one or two fathers on campus each day. They help direct cars and students during morning drop-offs, lead games during lunch and recess, read to students and provide “extra eyes and ears to enhance school security,” Snow said.
A Change in School Dynamics Nationwide?
“There are a lot of men like these dads down in Louisiana. All you’ve got to do is give them an opportunity,” he said. “If these guys are visible and present, it just changes the dynamics.”
Las Vegas nonprofit 10,000 Kids will be Dads on Duty USA’s first official affiliate chapter, Lee said. But there are also schools across the country emulating the idea. In recent weeks, schools in Kansas City, Kansas, and South Carolina have added similar programs.
Shirelle Dowdell, principal of Henninger High School in Syracuse, N.Y., is among those who have been inspired to get students’ dads involved. In September, Henninger shut down for a day after fights erupted during an evacuation prompted by a student setting off the fire alarm.
“We have been thinking of implementing something like this for a while. Mrs. Dowdell sent me the video of Shreveport and said, ‘Let’s go,’” said Kim Goodman, community school coordinator at Henninger.
She works for Peaceful Schools, an organization that runs enrichment and social-emotional learning programs.
“We have serious challenges facing youth today and the accountability that comes with family involvement in school is a clear step to meeting these obstacles head on.”
While the Southwood High fathers have received national attention for their efforts, La’Fitte said at least one person at the school isn’t thrilled about their involvement.
“She just has to accept it,” La’Fitte said of his daughter. “Who really wants their dad at the school every single day?”
Linda Jacobson is a senior writer at The 74, where this article was originally published. It is reprinted here through the Solutions Journalism Exchange, part of the Solutions Journalism Network’s programs to spread rigorous reporting about responses to problems.