Jeter Mallamace has only been on the South Forsyth High School staff for two years, but he’s well-known and heavily involved in school affairs. He holds court with students during lunch and was selected to appear in the red-carpet unveiling of the school’s prom theme. So it was natural that Jeter appeared in South’s yearbook this school year.
But his picture was easy to spot among South’s staff — because Jeter is a dog.
Jeter is not just a cute office mascot; he’s considered an integral part of South’s efforts to address its students’ social and emotional well-being.
Forsyth County Schools started pushing social-emotional learning in the district in 2016 to address the general well-being of students, not just their academic achievement. South Forsyth’s administration recognized its own student body could benefit from social-emotional learning strategies, particularly for students who felt the pressure and stress from trying to compete academically in one of the state’s top performing schools. They devised new measures, like “pulse checks” where students and teachers meet one-on-one every Wednesday to talk about the student’s day and foster personal connections.
Administrators thought Jeter could add another dimension. The 6-year-old black goldendoodle is a therapy dog certified through Humane Hearts, a local organization of therapy dog owners who visit special groups in the community, like libraries, assisted living homes and schools. Jeter’s owner, Lynn Mallamace, a paraprofessional at South, has brought him into the school the past two school years to interact with students.
“He’s always assisting with a mood, a kind of anxiety or stress,” Mallamace said.
Mallamace brings Jeter in every Monday and Friday to visit classes and hang out near the school’s cafeteria during lunch. She takes Jeter into special education classes where students can learn about the responsibility of caring for a pet. Sometimes counselors or teachers request Jeter to come in on other days to help a particular student during a tough time.
Mallamace encourages any student who is comfortable enough to pet and even hug Jeter. Studies have shown that petting a dog increases the body’s level of dopamine and serotonin, Mallamace said, two chemicals in the brain that are responsible for happiness.
“One of the first things this year, I had a student run out of class, and she just curled up in a ball and had an anxiety attack, and she was just crying,” Mallamace said. “He just stayed on her side and nudged his nose in her, and he licked away every tear. He was just amazing to her.”
Jeter has helped students cope with the stress of a hard day or busy week of finals, and he’s helped bring together students who might not have otherwise known each other.
“It gives them a reason to be social with one another,” Mallamace said.
Over time, Jeter became a normal presence in South’s community. Some students made him an Instagram account. He even got a staff ID to wear on his collar.
So on picture day for South’s staff in September, principal Laura Wilson insisted that Jeter be included.
“She said, ‘He’s a part of us. He has to be in the yearbook,’” Mallamace said. “I’m like, ‘Alright.’”
Mallamace told only a handful of people, she said. When students received their yearbooks last Monday, Jeter’s portrait was a humorous and heartwarming surprise.
“I was sitting in my office, and down the hallway you could hear [students], ‘Did you guys see Jeter in the yearbook?’” Mallamace said. “... It was so cute.”
“It’s such a great picture too,” said Kimberly Christofferson, a marketing teacher at South. “He’s so animated.”
South is embracing Jeter and dog therapy even more going forward. He attended prom in a dog tux outfit. Mallamace hopes to bring him to South’s graduation on Wednesday too (in cap and gown outfit, of course.) Meanwhile, Jeter got a partner in March in Murphy, Christofferson’s 5-year-old light-brown goldendoodle.
Mallamace and Christofferson plan to have Jeter and Murphy in different areas of the campus to reach more students.
“He’s definitely a big part of here,” Mallamace said. “We’re looking forward to having Murphy with us.”