[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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- The district has completed a project that enhanced door hardware to all classrooms.
- DERT is the District Emergency Response Team. Each building has a Building Emergency Response Team (BERT).
- 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.
- The district has implemented an extensive surveillance system with high resolution cameras.
- The district has carried out drills to train staff and students on what to do in the event of an active shooter event.
- 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.