Guns or No Guns: Is That Really the Question? Part 2—The Controversy Over Arming Monitors

[JK: The conflict over the arming of monitors in the Saratoga Springs School District  is rooted in the fact that the lives of people’s children are at stake.  People on both sides of the issue can easily interpret their opponents in this matter as implicitly threatening their families.  In this blog I take the risk of alienating or even angering those who take a different view.   I offer my opinion using my best judgment and with the best of intent but I also acknowledge that there are valid arguments to the contrary and  I respect those who will disagree with me.

While I have an opinion on the monitor issue and while it is important, it is not the only issue that will determine  my vote.  Ensuring that we have the best educational services for our children goes beyond whether to arm monitors.] 

The Controversy Over Arming Monitors

While there has been much discussion nationally and locally over the best way to keep students and staff safe in schools and proposals for so-called “soft protection” have been part of the conversation, much of the public debate in the Saratoga Springs School District has focused on the question of whether the use of armed grounds monitors provide more safety for students or pose an additional threat to their safety.

Many people are understandably frightened by the level of gun violence in America and they react in very different ways to that fear. In many cases that fear results in the inability to listen to opposing views. School Board meetings where the arming of monitors was discussed often saw members of the audience speak in anger and with contempt of those who disagreed with them. In the most extreme cases those opposed to arming the monitors viewed those who wanted them armed as “gun nuts” and advocates for the NRA. On the other side there were some who angrily viewed their opponents as being unconcerned with the safety of their children.

Complicating the discussion of the role of the monitors is the issue of guns themselves that often triggers strong reactions.  For many people whose only contact with guns is through observing the mayhem that regularly appears on the television news, thinking about guns often generates visceral fear. The assumption often is, if guns are present, someone is going to get hurt. This often makes it difficult to have a constructive discussion about the use of guns and gun safety. The reaction to guns in general is a strong factor in the consideration of whether grounds monitors in the Saratoga Springs School District should be armed.

Opposition To Arming Monitors

 One of the main fears often expressed by those who oppose the arming of grounds monitors is that a gun will be accidently discharged and cause innocent people to be injured. Shafer Gaston makes this point in a recent post on this blog.

Gaston noted that there are approximately 500 deaths per year attributed to gun accidents. He adds that even trained police have accidents.  To support this he links to a web site associated with Police Magazine which is a police trade journal.  The web page has anecdotal reports of police accidents but regrettably provides no statistics.  The incidents appear to all be from the last two years  and some occurred in other countries. Not all involve actual wounding or death.   Only one documented incident occurred in a school and no one was injured.

Mr. Gaston is on the mark when he asserts that the availability of guns introduces the risk of accident.  Nevertheless, I would expect Mr. Gaston would acknowledge that the issue is not that simple.   He asserts that “weapons should only be introduced when the risk of accident is outweighed by the needs of security.” So the challenge lies in assessing both the risk of accidents if monitors are armed and the risk to students if monitors are not armed and an active shooter incident occurs. Statistics can help in trying to make these assessments but they are not the only source of information to consider.

One candidate for the School Board told me that the risk of arming the monitors was such that at the recent community meeting on safety, the District’s insurance agency had recommended against it. This turned out not to be true. The insurance representative instead told the audience “I can lean either way…..It’s a governance issue.” Here is a link to the video of the meeting. The insurance representative can be heard discussing the issue between 1:11:33 and 1:13:33

 

So what are the factors that increase or decrease the potential threat of an accidental discharge of a gun?

It would seem it is not necessarily the number of guns present that may increase the risk of an accidental shooting but the degree to which those handling the guns are trained to handle them safely.  I would argue that a gun in a home where none of the family members are trained in gun safety poses a greater risk of an accidental shooting than in a police station even though there are many more guns present but where there is a culture of gun safety and on-going and extensive training in the handling of guns.

 In fact, Mr. Gaston acknowledges that there are mitigating factors regarding the risk of guns.  I exchanged emails with Mr. Gaston and learned that he supports having armed SROs at the high school and the middle school.  In fact, the school board members who voted to disarm monitors also voted to add an additional SRO to the school district.  So the actual policy being debated in the school district is not whether any armed personnel should be allowed in our schools but who and how many should be armed. [JK: The issue of SROs and their training is complicated and will be discussed in a future blog post]

I asked Mr. Gaston if he supported SROs at all the Saratoga Springs School District schools.  He responded that he did not.  He believes that there is less need for a law enforcement presence with elementary aged children and that those schools are very secure. He also believes that the interaction between the elementary schools and the local police is both frequent and positive.  He also believes that the cost associated with supporting that many SROs is prohibitive and makes no sense.

 So Mr. Gaston and School Board members do not oppose having armed personnel in the schools. They are only on the record for opposing arming the school monitors.

Who Should be Armed?

Let’s understand that monitors have been providing the basic security for the school district for three decades.  They oversee the arrival and departure of students to insure their safety given the presence of moving buses and other vehicles.  They spend much of their time patrolling the school grounds to intercept persons who should not be on the school grounds and occasionally to intercept students inappropriately trying to leave the school.  Over the decades they have dealt with petty theft, broken up fights, and dealt with contraband drugs.  Their efforts have helped create an environment that has allowed the teachers to focus on teaching.  In fact, they continue to perform this function today.  The fact is that the monitors have encountered conflict in the course of their work for years.  The difference now is that they are no longer armed.  As far as I can tell, no one has suggested eliminating their positions.

It is my understanding that the district also involves them in some training programs to provide them with support.  They will be participating in a training program focused on “de-escalation” which I take to be how to calm potentially volatile events.

The Saratoga Springs Police Department began addressing active shooting issues decades ago.  “Active Shooter” incidents involve everything from domestic violence to robberies.  Given the increasing incidents of shootings at schools, this began to be a significant focus.  This training which often involves simulations often at schools, occurs multiple times each year.

Since most of the monitors currently employed at the district are retired police officers they have been extensively trained during their careers in dealing with armed threats.  While people may legitimately argue over the extent that they should go through refresher training, as retired veterans these men/women are not rookies.  During their long careers they have had to carry a side arm and be prepared for its potential use on a daily basis.  As active police they were required to re-qualify to carry their weapon annually.

The fact that the monitors have a record of thirty years without unholstering a gun let alone discharging it, reflects the vigorous culture of gun safety in which they trained and lived.

This, however, is not the only consideration regarding whether they should be armed.

The grim reality is that most school shootings unfold quickly.  Given the lethal nature of weapons currently available to the public, an assailant operating in a school with its dense population is able to inflict a great deal of harm quickly.

 I recently spoke with a highly respected retired police officer whose career included serving in a management capacity.  He shared with me the difficulties that police would encounter trying to address an on-going shooting at a school.  First, they would need to find a secure place to park their car that would not impede other police and emergency vehicles that might follow them.  They would then need to find and put on their helmet and locate and secure their tactical weapon.  In spite of the fact that they may have participated in exercises at the school, they would not be highly familiar with it.  They would need to approach the school with great caution both to protect themselves and to insure that they did nothing to jeopardize the lives of the students and staff.  He emphasized what a challenging environment a school is.  His essential point was that even if they were near the school when they got the call, it would take them some time to effectively engage the threat.

He noted that the monitors would already be at the school.  The monitors are intimately knowledgeable about the geography of the school.  They also know many of the people in the school and while they may not know everyone, they will be able to distinguish quickly many people who are not a threat whereas the police responding to the call will have no way of easily assessing anyone they encounter with the exception of the monitors who are dressed to indicate their role as safety staff.

In life there are many things that involve risk. As stated before, the choice before the community is essentially which risk they are willing to live with. Reasonable people will disagree  on how to answer this question.  While additional  “soft protections” should be explored and implemented, in the end these measures may mitigate the chance of a shooting incident but they will not eliminate it. The critical need for a rapid response should a shooting incident occur outweighs for me the risk of having armed monitors on site on a regular basis.

 How Many Should Be Armed?

 In addition to the question of whether to re-arm the monitors,  the other question facing the district is how many armed officers should the district employ?

The district currently employs two armed SROs who are stationed at the High School and Middle School. This provides coverage during the school day to the high school and middle school but leaves the elementary schools uncovered. The SROs do not provide  coverage for events occurring outside of the school day such as sports events which the monitors still cover unarmed.

Mr. Shafer reflects many in the community who oppose extending coverage to include these other areas.

Others such as Saratoga Parents for School Safety are seeking comprehensive coverage of all schools.

Ed Cubanski who is a candidate supported by Saratoga Parents For Safe Schools advocates employing SROs in all the schools.  He estimates the cost to be roughly $500,000.00.

There are some who would like to rearm the monitors and have them make up the coverage which would potentially be less expensive.

How this would be paid for is unclear.  There has been some discussion about the use of grants but it is rare that grants cover ongoing costs.  [JK: I will be discussing the funding issue in a separate post].

To be continued…

 

 

Tim Holmes Running For Mayor?

Tim Holmes has been circulating petitions seeking the Republican mayoralty line in the November election.  Mr. Holmes was active on the city’s Open Space Advisory Committee.  He lives in the vicinity of the proposed Saratoga Hospital expansion.  Mr. Holmes is the author of the book, A Brief History of Saratoga Springs.  He serves on the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Saratoga Battlefield.

Two Corrections To Guns Or No Guns Part 1

The legislation that banned guns on school property for people other than police officers and sheriffs unless authorized by a school district was not the Safe Act but the Federal Legislation titled “Gun Free School Zones Act” which was passed in 1990.

New York State Insurance Reciprocal which insures the Saratoga Springs School District did not recommend against rearming the school  monitors.  They consider whether the monitors should or should not be armed a decision that should be made by the school board.

Guns Or No Guns: Is That Really The Question? Part 1u

[JK: This is the first in a series of posts on the safety/gun issues in the Saratoga Springs School District.  This post deals with some history and background to the controversy.  Upcoming posts will explore the different sides of the controversy and who is running for school board and how these candidates plan to address the issues.]

 Monitors: The Basics

On Thursday, March 14, 2019, I met with Saratoga Springs Superintendent Michael Patton and several of his staff to try to better understand the history and role of the district’s “monitors.”  These are the staff members who are part of the Saratoga Springs School District’s safety program and who, until recently, carried concealed weapons.

The monitor program began in the early 1970’s.  They are utilized on an as need basis for large events and for beginning and end of the day logistics at the schools.  Originally actively employed police officers and sheriffs worked part time as monitors on their days off.  As active law enforcement officers, they carried side arms that were not concealed.  As active duty officers they were certified in a variety of ways including for carrying guns.

Over the years there was a gradual transition from active to retired police officers and sheriffs.  Today all the monitors are retired law enforcement officers.   For example, in addition to retired Saratoga Springs Police Officers, the retired police chief from Ballston Spa and a retired detective from New York City are currently employed as monitors.

The monitor program employs thirteen part time and three full time monitors.  There is a full time 12 month person for the high school.  The full time staff person for the middle school works for ten months.  The head grounds person works ten months and then works during summer school.

All monitors wear clothing that identifies them as monitors.

The monitors ensure traffic safety at arrival and dismissal times and check student ID’s when seniors leave for lunch.  They are tasked with monitoring building grounds and vetting students, staff, and visitors who wish to gain entrance to the High School.

Grounds monitors are also deployed to evening events throughout the district.  Some examples of events they cover are:

athletic events, school plays and concerts, continuing education, Board of Education meetings, outside user groups, etc.

It is important to understand how the monitors fit into the culture of the school.  They were not armed sentinels guarding school grounds.  Their role was very different from that of police patrolling the city.  They worked closely with students, faculty, administrators, and other staff in ways that integrated them into the school community.  This is not to under play the significance of the fact that they were equipped/armed to deal with a lethal threat were it to arise but to understand that this was just one of the sides of their work in keeping students safe.  Many enjoyed personal relationships with a large number of students and staff in the buildings where they worked.

Currently, John Thuener who is director of Facilities and Operations, along with Mark Leffler who is the Head Grounds Monitor manage the monitor staff.  The two review the coming activities for the week in the District such as sports events and determine what staffing will be needed and who to assign.  Mark Leffler recently retired from the Saratoga Springs Police Department.

Monitors are paid $17.50 per hour.

Recent History

 During the thirty odd years that the monitors carried side arms they were always concealed and very few people knew they were actually armed.  During that period no gun was every discharged and in fact, no gun was ever unholstered.

In January of 2013,  New York State passed the Safe Act.  In 1990 Congress passed the “Gun-Free School Zones Act.”  It made it a felony to be in possession of a gun on school property if you were not actively employed by a law enforcement organization or explicitly authorized to carry a weapon by the school board.  Strictly speaking, the retired armed police officers employed by the school district became subject to prosecution.

When the Saratoga Springs School District hired Michael Patton as its Superintendent in the fall of 2017, he became aware of the fact that the monitors were armed and that this required an affirmative action by the school board.

On October 9th in a 5 to 4 vote the Saratoga Springs School District Board of Education voted against allowing monitors to carry guns.

At the time of that vote a School Resource Officer (SRO) who was also armed worked in the district.  The New York State Insurance Reciprocal provides insurance to approximately half the school districts in New York including Saratoga Springs.  NYSIR  recommended that the Saratoga Springs School District  not rearm the monitors but NYSIR recommended that the District should employ two SROs.  The representative of NYSIR that spoke at a public meeting raised the need to insure that the monitors are properly trained in light of the potential liabilities but made it clear that how to address the monitor issue was up to the District’s school board.  In January the School Board unanimously voted to hire a second SRO.

The School Resource Officer

New York State established the employment category School Resource Officer (SRO)” in 2000.  An SRO had to be an active law enforcement professional meaning, for example, a sheriff or police officer.  According to the National Association of School Resorce Officers (NASRO) recommends at least 40 hours of training as to how best to serve the schools they are assigned to.  This is a link to the Frequently Asked Questions at the NASRO website.  A Google search I made provided no requirements for SROs in New York other than they had to be an active duty law enforcement officer.  There are references to training but I could find no certification or other standardized requirements.

Originally the positions were managed by the New York State Police.  State Troopers were underwritten by the state and assigned to local schools across New York in the wake of the Columbine shooting.  As a cost saving measure, the state subsequently eliminated funding for the troopers.  Some schools, including the Saratoga Springs School District, opted to maintain SROs and replaced the troopers with officers from local police and sheriff departments.

The Saratoga Springs School District presently employs two SROs. A Saratoga Springs police officer operates out of the High School and a Saratoga County sheriff works out of the Middle School.  There is a technical/jurisdictional issue because the school district extends beyond Saratoga Springs proper.  Both of these individuals are armed.  They still report to someone in their department rather than the school although obviously they work closely with the school administration.  Think of SROs as similar to police officers assigned to an event like a parade.  They still operate under the leadership of their department but work closely with the organizers of the parade.

The sheriff stationed at the Middle School costs the district $72,000.00 a year.  I believe the Saratoga Springs police officer costs roughly the same. The city and the county both contribute an additional amount to the salaries of their respective officers.

Pending Legislation

Recently the New York State Legislature passed legislation that continues to address the issue of who can be armed on school property.  The legislation is awaiting the Governor’s signature.

Bills introduced in the New York State Legislature have memorandum attached to them describing the provisions in the bill in more accessible language.  The following is an excerpt from the memorandum attached to this recent bill:

Requires that no educational institution shall issue written authorization to carry a firearm to any person who is not primarily employed as a school resource officer, law enforcement officer, or security guard.

This language would preclude teachers, administrators, and staff like janitors and aids from carrying guns on school grounds.

It does however allow for a “security guard” to be armed.  In order to be a “security guard” as defined in New York, an individual must participate in a vigorous training program and receive a certificate and participate in additional training following receiving the card.

My understanding is that the requirement for having a certificate is waved for retired law enforcement officers.

It is my understanding that if the Governor signs this bill, should the school decide in the future that it wanted the monitors to carry weapons again in addition to their regular duties; they would need to change the job title, description, and requirements to meet the “security guard” status.

Additional Safety Measures

The Saratoga Springs School District has devoted considerable resources in a broad plan to protect its students.

This is a link to a more extensive discussion of what they currently are doing.

Among the programs the District has implemented are:

  1. A Visitor Management System with photo ID called BadgePass.  All people seeking access to a school building must register.  The software generates a temporary photo identification badge with their picture.  The software incorporates Predator Barrier which checks the National Sex Offenders Registry which would generate an alert if the person seeking entry is a level 2 or level 3 predator.
  2. The district has completed a project that enhanced door hardware to all classrooms.
  3. DERT is the District Emergency Response Team.  Each building has a Building Emergency Response Team (BERT).
  4. Members of the BERT teams have attended a variety of training and education programs such as Mental Health First Aid offered by the Mental Health Association of New York State.  The district training has involved representatives from Four Winds, Saratoga Center for the Family, the Saratoga County Mental Health Department, and private practices.
  5. The district has implemented an extensive surveillance system with high resolution cameras.
  6. The district has carried out drills to train staff and students on what to do in the event of an active shooter event.
  7. The district has initiated a variety of programs meant to proactively deal with mental health issues which can contribute to minimizing the danger of violence in general.

 

 

 

Kendall Hicks Campaign Event

I received the following release from the Kendall Hicks Campaign

Please join us this Friday Night, 3/22 at the Frederick Allen Lodge at 69 Beekman Street as we kick off Kendall Hicks Campaign for Commissioner Of Public Safety.  Have a chance to speak with the candidate, enjoy good community, live music and refreshments.  Event begins at 7PM.  Here is link to the Facebook Event.  Share with your groups and bring your friends.  Thanks for your support.

https://www.facebook.com/events/252658398955717/?active_tab=about

 

City Center Parking Structure Development On The Move

On March 21st at 5:30 at the City Recreation Center (15 Vanderbilt Avenue) the City’s Design Review Commission and the City’s Planning Board will meet to hear a presentation by the LA Group regarding the plans to develop the Flat Rock Centre Parking Structure.  Saratoga Today has an informative article about the latest iteration of the project.

Link To Story

 

 

Third Parties Endorse Saratoga Springs Candidates For City Council and Supervisor

New York State is one of the few states in the country that allows candidates to appear on multiple ballot lines in a practice called “fusion voting” or “cross-endorsements”.  Candidates will often seek multiple party endorsements to attract voters who might not vote for them on say the Republican line but might cast a vote for them on say the Independence Party line. Votes on all the party lines are tallied to determine the winner of a race.

While there has been some talk in Albany about ending fusion voting, so far the NY State Legislature has not included this in their changes to the voting system.

I have not yet been able to obtain the endorsements, if any, made by the Green Party.  The Republican chair, Matt Hogan, tells me it is his understanding that the local Conservative Party has endorsed the four candidates on the Republican slate and no Democrats.  I will report on any additional endorsements as I learn of them.

Here is a list of the candidates endorsed by the Working Families Party and the Independence Party.

The Working Families Party has endorsed:

Meg Kelly for Mayor

Michele Madigan for Commissioner of Finance

John Franck for Commissioner of Accounts

Tara Gaston for Supervisor

 

The Independence Party has endorsed:

Meg Kelly for Mayor

Michele Madigan for Commissioner of Finance

John Franck for Commissioner of Accounts

Robin Dalton for Commissioner of Public Safety

Skip Scirocco for Commissioner of Public Works

Matt Veitch for Supervisor

Steve Mittler for Supervisor

The Saratoga County Chair of the Independence Party, Eddy Miller, expressed enthusiasm for their candidates: “We have endorsed five  excellent incumbents who have been doing a great job for Saratoga Springs and are confident that the newcomers we have endorsed will work well with those currently serving as Saratoga races into a new decade, the 100th year anniversary of the Roaring 20’s!”

Members of all the parties are currently circulating petitions to get endorsed candidates on the ballot. Petitions are due to be filed April 1-4.