With his serious, no-nonsense demeanor and stocky build, Ariel Santiago looks like an authority figure.
But as he moves through the halls at Marie Curie Institute carrying his Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, students seem at ease as they greet him and receive pats on their heads.
Santiago, an Amsterdam Police Department officer, is a newly designated hall monitor at the elementary school, part of the Amsterdam city schools’ districtwide initiative to keep students safe in the elementary schools after a threat was made to Ralph J. McNulty Academy this winter.
“Because of the threat at Magnetic, this very positive program has developed in the elementary schools,” Marie Curie Principal Mary Mathey said.
Mathey said she thought having hall monitors would be just about protecting children’s safety, but it has evolved, including a way to teach children about making good choices, respecting each other and acting appropriately in school.
Santiago spoke Wednesday to 20 students in teacher Brenden Cetnar’s fifth-grade class about respect for authority and each other and the rules of the school.
“He’ll be talking about basic life skills so the students can get along well with others and make good choices,” Mathey said.
Santiago said he attended school at Marie Curie and he was once a member of the Greater Amsterdam school board, so as a police officer he is happy to be working in the schools again.
“I see the whole picture,” he said. “I deal with these kids in school and in the community.”
During the first few weeks of Santiago’s posting at the school he changed the traffic patterns for parents to pick up and drop off their children.
He said parents were driving into the school’s main circle and creating unsafe conditions for students who were getting on the buses and also caused traffic congestion.
He taught parents to go around the side of the school to pick up and drop off their children, and students are now dismissed through the cafeteria instead of out the front doors.
“This way you can learn who the parents are and learn their cars, so you know if a child is not going home with the right person,” he said.
Santiago said he plans to speak with every classroom, but will begin with the fifth-graders in an attempt to ready them for middle school at Wilbur H. Lynch Literacy Academy. The school has experienced violence and vandalism in recent weeks. Santiago hopes by instilling solid values in the students before they get to the middle school he can attempt to lessen those occurrences.
“It’s going to get harder when you go to the middle school,” he told the students in Cetnar’s class.
Students said they respect Santiago and trust him.
Sebastian Barquero, 11, said he has never felt unsafe in school, but he thinks it’s important for Santiago to be in the building.
“He takes care of us,” Barquero said. “If something were to happen, he could protect us.”
Tanisha Maldonado, 10, said she views Santiago as an authority figure, but also as a friend and she feels comfortable going to him if she had a problem.
“If we are every in trouble, he’s there to help us,” she said.
Cetnar said Santiago is important to the teachers because they have their hands full already with more than 20 students in each class.
“I’m dealing with 21 in this classroom and if one goes out I have to trust that they’ll be OK and I do, but ... it’s nice to have that extra body looking out for them,” he said.
Cetnar said the students also know that Santiago is always watching them so they behave themselves in the bathrooms or the cafeteria.
Mathy said she hoped hall monitors remain in the budget for the next school year because they are an asset to the district.
“You don’t know the people that are out there,” Santiago said. “You never had to worry about pedophiles before. I just don’t want something to happen and have to say, ‘What if ... ?’ ”