When Saratoga Springs police led active shooter drills in city schools over the years, they sometimes practiced what would happen if an armed district grounds monitor was in a position to respond to a shooter.
John Catone, Saratoga Springs assistant police chief, on Friday said Saratoga police for years have operated on the assumption school district’s grounds monitors, most of whom have been former or off-duty officers, may be armed on school grounds. Because for years some of those grounds monitors were armed while on school grounds, in violation of state law, district officials said this week.
As the school board considers whether to formally authorize their grounds monitors to carry firearms on school property as part of the district’s security efforts, Catone said such an authorization would clarify for police just who at the district would be armed in the case of an emergency.
“You would take all of the guesswork out of it, you would know who was authorized to carry,” Catone said. “It’s another piece of concrete information we would have.”
Since the district started employing former state and local police and sheriff officers as district grounds monitors approximately 30 years ago, the former cops have played a key role in the district’s security plans.
Monitors are charged with maintaining order and protecting school property, according to a recent job positing for head school grounds monitor. Monitors are also charged with preventing illegal entry and reporting threats to police or other authorities.
Mark Leffler, a longtime Saratoga Springs officer, in recent months replaced former officer Dan Mullan as the district’s head grounds monitor, overseeing about a dozen monitors.
As many as 10 of those monitors would be qualified to carry a gun on school grounds, if the school board decided to grant authorization, Saratoga Superintendent Michael Patton said this week.
Until as recently as the spring, some of the grounds monitors carried firearms on school grounds, a practice that was stopped after district officials determined the monitors needed official board approval to carry firearms under state law.
“We don’t know who may or may not have weapons, they didn’t work for us,” Catone said when asked whether the police department was aware of the grounds monitors being armed. “That’s up to to the school district to know, that’s not up to us.”
But police knew the officers may have been carrying a gun and, in some instances, police and district personnel practiced scenarios in which an armed grounds monitor would work with police against an active shooter, Catone said.
“In some of those scenario-based things we’ve incorporated the SRO (school resource officer) being involved, the SRO being ultimately eliminated… a grounds monitor being involved, the grounds monitor being armed, not being armed, being eliminated,” Catone said of active shooter training. The district also employs a school resource officer, who is an on-duty Saratoga police officer usually in uniform.
But it’s still unclear what district administrators knew about the grounds monitors carrying firearms. Also unclear is to what extent, if any, those carrying firearms on school grounds was documented or accounted for in district plans.
Also see: Saratoga Springs schools may rearm grounds monitors, Sept. 11, 2018
In response to a list of written questions about whether district administrators had been aware some of the grounds monitors possessed firearms on school property and whether or not that was accounted for in safety plans, the district released a statement reiterating school Superintendent Patton’s comments at a Tuesday school board meeting.
The district statement did not answer the questions the Daily Gazette submitted.
“In the past, certain members of the district’s security staff… did possess a firearm on district property,” district officials wrote in the statement. “When district officials determined this practice was not in compliance with current law, grounds monitors were instructed to no longer possess a firearm on school property.”
When asked whether grounds monitors possessing firearms was a part of the district’s safety plans or training, district spokeswoman Maura Manny responded that it was not stated in the district’s written safety plan.
The district did not respond to a question about whether administrators through the years were aware of grounds monitors possessing firearms.
Former Superintendent Michael Piccirillo could not be reached for comment nor could former head grounds monitor Dan Mullan.
Catone said Police Chief Greg Veitch remembered seeing a letter from about 15 years ago in which district administrators notified the police department some of the grounds monitors may be carrying firearms at school. He said the letter was misplaced amid an effort to digitize the department’s records.
“There was a letter and an understanding that that was what was going on,” Catone said of the grounds monitors carrying firearms. “It was a brief thing, an understanding that everyone was aware that some, not all, some off-duty officers may be carrying.”
Paul Aloy, an attorney with Honeywell Law Firm representing the district, said district officials were working to better understand how the monitors had operated in the past and to ensure they are in compliance moving forward.
“The district is committed to making sure it’s in compliance with all laws,” Aloy said. “The district has an interest in knowing what has been going on in its schools from a security and grounds standpoint over the past few years, that will help inform it (going forward).”
Aloy did not comment on specifics about whether previous administrators were aware the monitors possessed firearms or how the district determined the monitors were out of step with state law.
Catone said he plans to be on hand at the school board’s Sept. 27 to make a public presentation about the partnership between the school district and the police department. At that meeting, district officials plan to again discuss whether to authorize the grounds monitors to carry firearms and potentially vote to do so.
Catone said the city police would support a decision to rearm the grounds monitors, highlighting the experience and skills of the former officers now working for the school district.
“To be able to have an extra set of hands or an extra person that can stabilize or eliminate that threat as we are responding or to assist (the school resource officer) or in the event (the resource officer) is incapacitated -- that’s invaluable,” Catone said. “I don’t think you can put a price tag on that.”