JACKSON, Miss.—When Jaimar Scott’s daughter gained admission to Barack Obama Magnet Elementary School in Mississippi’s capital city about six years ago, her father started volunteering at the school.
“I think it’s just me wanting to see more men represented in the educational process,” Scott told the Mississippi Free Press on Jan. 18, 2023, in the conference room in McWillie Elementary School.
Last October, Scott participated in the launch of the Jackson Public School District Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads Of Great Students), a group of men who volunteer at the district’s schools. The group’s coordinator, Micah Biggs, told the Mississippi Free Press Tuesday that a previous iteration of the organization in the Jackson Public School district dissolved about 10 years ago.
Watch D.O.G.S. began in 1998 in Springdale, Ark., and now has chapters across 46 states. The organization’s website says it provides “positive male role models for the students, demonstrating by their presence that education is important” and “extra sets of eyes and ears to enhance school security and reduce bullying.”
The goals and popularity of the program among fathers square with research showing that Black men have the highest engagement with their children of men of any race, despite stereotypes to the contrary. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control found that a higher percentage of Black dads fed or ate meals with their children daily (78.2%); bathed, diapered or dressed children daily (70.4%); and read to children daily (34.9%) than white or Hispanic fathers. Black fathers ranked only half a percentage lower than white fathers who played with children daily (82.2% versus 82.7%).
Dispelling Rumors and Myths
Jaimar Scott started volunteering six years ago at Obama Magnet Elementary School “to dispel that rumor or that myth that the man works (and) the woman takes care of the kids as far as homework, education.” He said he began opening the door for students in the morning and reading in classes.
“I just knew that, all right, my daughter’s at this school, what can I do to help, volunteer or whatever?” he said. “We were just (doing) like we do now: just standing at the front, opening car doors, first day of school—things of that nature.”
The Watch D.O.G.S. volunteers monitor the school entrance, read to classes and eat lunch with students. It is an initiative of the National Center for Fathering, which created millions of “in-school” volunteer hours across 5,348 schools in 47 states.
The district’s website highlights survey responses from 50 principals on their impression of the program. Most respondents believe that it has contributed to school safety, decreased behavioral problems, and promoted a safe and positive learning environment. JPS says that “50% said they thought that Watch D.O.G.S. contributed to an increase in student achievement.”
Briggs told the Mississippi Free Press that a previous iteration of Watch D.O.G.S in the Jackson Public School District had conducted the survey, and that it was dissolved about 10 years ago.
State Auditor Focuses On ‘Absent Fathers’
Two months before the launch of the JPS Watch D.O.G.S., Mississippi State Auditor Shad White released a report that he claimed shows the cost of absent fathers to taxpayers.
The analysis in the August 2022 report cited a loss of $560 million in state taxes from “fatherless children who dropped out of school during the 2021-2022 school year alone.” It said that more than “250,000 Mississippi children live in fatherless homes,” and that the State used $180 million to imprison “male prisoners” who left “fatherless homes” behind and $50 million “for foster care as a result of fatherless teen mothers in 2019.”
“This report estimates that, through increased incarceration rates, increased education costs, and other drivers of taxpayer spending, Mississippi taxpayers will see an additional $700 million in current and future spending obligations each year due to fatherlessness,” the elected official’s analysis said.
In an op-ed for the Mississippi Free Press on Aug. 30, 2022, scholars Christine Dickason and Kaitlyn Barton said that number is “wrong.”
“And let’s be frank: The ‘math’ used to calculate the $700-million estimate that the auditor’s team claims is the cost of fatherlessness is just wrong,” they said. “Even if the proportions were correct (which the evidence provided does not support), you cannot just multiply proportions with different measurement units all drawn from different years of data.”
“Additionally, it is unclear what expenses were used to calculate the up-to-$57.5 million attributed to fatherless teenage mothers,” they added. “None of this is to suggest that engaged fathers are a bad thing. But to turn research and statistics into misinformation is dangerous.”
Even though the report cited incarceration as a driver of fatherlessness, White tweeted on Aug. 22, 2022, that he believes Mississippi has a “violent crime problem,” not a “mass incarceration problem.”
“The answer to this problem of violent crime is not to let violent criminals out of jail,” he wrote. “Instead, it’s time to start thinking about the core drivers of the problem, like sons growing up without responsible fathers in the home.”
Dickason and Barton cited a “tradition of unjustly separating Black families as a means of control, and our system of mass incarceration (that) has worsened the tearing apart of Black families” in Mississippi. White responded with his own op-ed, arguing that his arguments are not dissimilar from ones former President Barack Obama made in the past—although the former president was openly concerned with systemic inequities and poverty’s connection to crime, as well as mass incarceration.
“[P]eople of color are more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained. African Americans are more likely to be arrested,” Obama told the NAACP national convention in 2015. “They are more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime. And one of the consequences of this is, around 1 million fathers are behind bars. Around one in nine African American kids has a parent in prison.”
Obama then explained that the incarceration cycle, in turn, increases poverty and hurts families: “What is that doing to our communities? What’s that doing to those children? Our nation is being robbed of men and women who could be workers and taxpayers, could be more actively involved in their children’s lives, could be role models, could be community leaders, and right now they’re locked up for a non-violent offense.”
The auditor’s report offered the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or JROTC, as a solution to fatherlessness, but no others. “Retired military service members teach this program for high school students,” the report said. “JROTC teaches military history, provides structure and discipline, and requires physical exercise.”
“In a 2020 report, the Auditor’s office noted nearly 100% of students enrolled in the JROTC program in the Jackson Public School District obtained a high school diploma despite a 75% district-wide graduation rate.”
Following the August 2022 report, White hosted a “Fatherlessness Roundtable Discussion” at Germantown High School in Madison on Jan. 11, 2023, with America First Policy Institute‘s Jack Brewer and Lynn Hosemann as co-panelists addressing about 30 advanced placement students from a macroeconomics class. Hosemann is the wife of Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and a property manager in Jackson. The AFPI is closely aligned with former Trump administration officials.
The auditor told the public-school students that Mississippi has one of the country’s highest fatherlessness rates.
“I think it’s particularly important here in Mississippi to be thinking about that because if you just look at our statistics, you’ll see somewhere north of a-quarter-million children are growing up in Mississippi without an engaged dad in the home,” he said. “So we have the highest percentage of single-parent homes in the entire country, with the exception of West Virginia.”
After the program, the state auditor told reporters that the “government cannot solve this problem.”
“So, how do we reach people? We reach them through mentors who can speak straight to them with credibility and maybe change somebody’s mind,” White said. “But honestly, this goes beyond the dollars that government can provide. It gets to culture; it gets to the message that these kids are thinking about; it gets to what churches are doing; those kinds of things are maybe more important than the dollars that could flow from government.”
Rep. Summers: White’s Solutions Not Enough
On Jan. 13, Mississippi House Rep. Zakiya Summers, D-Jackson, told the Mississippi Free Press that “fatherlessness is an issue not just in the Black community, but across the state.” But she said State Auditor Shad White’s report was thin on solutions.
“The issue that I have with the state auditor’s report and this effort is that he really isn’t offering a comprehensive, sustainable solution to tackling this problem,” the Jackson Democrat said. “So if we really want to address fatherlessness issues, it’s got to have to take more than just investing in the JROTC program, which, you know, is the only solution that I’ve heard come out of his research.”
Rep. Summers pointed to various problems in the state, including having the “highest child poverty rate in the country.” In Mississippi, 27.7% of children lived in poverty in 2021, compared to 16.9% nationwide, with poverty disparately affecting Black families here.
“That speaks to why we have a fatherlessness issue in the first place,” she said. “So, one of the things that I’m pushing for this session is the creation of a legislative task force that would study child poverty in the state and develop solutions and strategies and recommendations that will help to reduce child poverty in the state of Mississippi.”
That effort, House Bill 819, died in committee without a vote on Jan. 31. It would have created a Mississippi Child Poverty Task Force, which would have identified and evaluated “poverty’s root causes and contributing factors in Mississippi.” The legislator told the Mississippi Free Press that “we still have the highest infant (mortality rate), and maternal mortality rate in the country. We need to address those issues.”
“How do we provide greater access to quality education, not just starting in kindergarten, but starting at 3 years old?” she added.
Summers explained that the State of Mississippi of Mississippi has refused to fully funded the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP, for years. MAEP is a formula enshrined in state law to guarantee at least an “adequate” level of funding for all public-school districts in the state.
“The state has refused, as you know, to fully fund MAEP,” she said. “How does that correlate with the crime issue, the poverty issue and the fatherlessness issue that we’re experiencing in the state of Mississippi?”
“And I’ll be willing to bet that we’ve seen those areas increase as a result of the state’s failure to fully fund education.”
Summers said she is willing to work with the state auditor to find solutions. “I welcome partnership with the state auditor, other state elected officials and my colleagues here at the Legislature; let’s really do something about it and not just talk about it,” she said. “If it’s that important of an issue that you’re willing to take taxpayer dollars to do a whole report on, then let’s do the very best we can to help families across the state of Mississippi.”
Watch D.O.G.S. as ‘Father Figures’
JPS appointed Micah Briggs as the coordinator of the district’s branch of Watch D.O.G.S. last June. Since then, he has worked to expand the group to schools across the district.
In the August 2022 report, the Office of the State Auditor pointed at a new bill that became law in Florida “to create a mentoring program for children from broken homes and a statewide campaign encouraging fathers to be involved in their children’s lives.”
The Jackson Public School district Watch D.O.G.S. are role models, Briggs said in the interview at McWillie Elementary School on Jan. 18.
“We don’t want to replace a father, but to have a father figure to be that model, to help with the affirmation of a child, like to be able to speak into a child’s life, and even sometimes to just be there, to be that encouragement and inspiration to that child, so they can ask him a tough question, and that comfort comes in when they see he keeps coming back,” Briggs said.
“He goes from being a stranger—’Wait, he’s safe.’ … This child may be considering doing some things that could destroy their life, and to be able to be familiar and comfortable with a man so that you can have that conversation that could transform the whole course of his life.”
Briggs said that Watch D.O.G.S. members do not have to have a child in the school district to volunteer, but must undergo a background check.
“We vet each application,” he said. “So by vetting, I mean, in addition to them filling out the application, we’re actually going to call the references because we want to have a general idea that the person is perceived as safe to be around students and staff.”
“After the references are checked, then we send the name in for the background check, and when the background check comes back, that’s when we find out if they’ve been approved and cleared to enter the schools,” he added. “In this day and age, If we don’t protect the scholars up front, there will be so many consequences, and we don’t want the students to pay those consequences.”
Jackson Public Schools Partners in Education Director Thea Faulkner told the Mississippi Free Press that Watch D.O.G.S. does not have its own separate line item in the JPS budget and that she could not say how much goes to Watch D.O.G.S, except for the coordinator’s salary. The program is under the Parent and Family Engagement Center, which the JPS Office of Student Support oversees. The Office of Student Support is federally funded, she said, adding that the program welcomes support and accountability from the community.
“I want people to hold us accountable for what we ask for to ensure that what we ask for is used according to the request,” she said.
“Now if they give us a general donation that we use at our discretion then that is another conversation. But if they want to specifically give to Watch D.O.G.S. to spend on a particular event, we can give them a copy of the receipt that eliminates those questions of accountability of exactly what it’s going to be used for.”
White Wary of Funding Mentorship Orgs
Though he did not discuss the Watch D.O.G.S. program, State Auditor Shad White told the Mississippi Free Press on Jan. 11 that giving state funds to nonprofits focused on mentorship could come with pitfalls—and risks of fraud. White’s office helped lead the investigation into Mississippi’s $77 million welfare fraud scandal, which saw Temporary Assistance For Needy Families funds meant for the poorest families diverted instead to causes championed by wealthy, famous and well-connected individuals.
“You see a broad spectrum of nonprofits in Mississippi—you see some that have great financial habits, they have strong internal controls to prevent fraud, and they have good outcomes, too,” he said. “So they can prove the number of people that they help. And let’s be clear, nonprofits are like people—some people are really good at their jobs, and some are really, really bad.”
“So you’ve got some nonprofits out there who don’t have boards, who don’t have good internal controls, who are walking fraud risks, and who have no evidence that their outcomes are actually making change here in Mississippi. And that really has been a problem in Mississippi in the last 10 years, as we’ve shoveled out a lot of TANF dollars to some of those nonprofits that did not handle the money well. So really what I’m saying is I think we need to … think critically about where the money is going and whether this is actually going to get at this problem.”
The state auditor said the federal government should demand that welfare funds’ state managers provide a report on the outcomes. “Failure to track outcomes … has to be fixed,” he said.
White complained that Mississippi has “north of $100 million” in TANF funds “just sitting on the sideline.”
“So that’s not doing anything at all, period,” he said. “And we have got to find ways to get that off the sidelines and actually do something that makes people’s lives better.
Micah Briggs said funding is important for successful recruitment drives for Jackson Public School Watch D.O.G.S. “because to have these launch events, to even recruit men, we don’t have much success without food. So you bring some pizza, you can get some dad and some students to come; you bring some donuts, you get some dad and students to come.”
What people like Jaimar Scott are doing is essential, Briggs said.
“We need a bunch more of him,” the coordinator said. “Like having him go to a school every day is powerful, but having five more just like him at that same school so that he’s not the only one. That’s life-saving because then he doesn’t burn out.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to Germantown High School as “Georgetown High School.” It has been corrected. We apologize for the error.