SARATOGA SPRINGS -- A deep divide over how to best protect Saratoga Springs schools was laid bare again during a safety forum Monday night.
District officials outlined efforts to “continuously improve” its safety measures, focusing on everything from adding push-button door locks to every classroom door to improving ways to identify and reach at-risk students long before they pose a risk to other students.
But the central question of whether to re-arm school district grounds monitors was still divisive. The district’s head grounds monitor and the city’s assistant police chief both said the city’s schools are less safe without armed monitors patrolling the schools – as there had been discreetly for years.
“I don’t carry a weapon here anymore, not allowed to, it would be against the law,” said Mark Leffler, who after 28 years with the Saratoga Springs Police Department joined the district staff in August. “I feel that we are less safe now than we were.”
John Catone, the city’s assistant police chief, also said the district’s schools were less safe without armed monitors. For years the district employed former police officers as monitors who carried concealed weapons, but that practice was ended in the spring after district officials determined it was out of line with state law. The school board this fall voted against authorizing the monitors to again carry firearms.
“I think you are less safe now, because to me it was an overreaction to a problem that didn’t exist,” Catone said of disarming the grounds monitors.
The comments came in response to a question posed by former Saratoga Police Chief Ed Moore, who has called on the district to rearm the monitors.
Before the questions, a panel of school personnel outlined a litany of measures the district has in place to keep the schools safe: an extensive surveillance camera network; a single point of entry; a “see something, say something” awareness campaign; a commitment to holding safety drills during chaotic periods like when students are between classes; and close relationships with law enforcement agencies.
District staff also emphasized the everyday preventative work of school counselors, psychologists, social workers and teachers who work to identify troubled students and match them with support services. They said the district is working to fine tune what at the meeting was called "multidisciplinary threat assessment teams."
“We are taking a comprehensive approach, because we want to prevent it from ever happening at all,” said David L’Hommedieu, assistant superintendent for information technology and operations.
An outside school safety consultant recommended the district hire a second police officer for Maple Avenue Middle School and other district schools outside city limits. Currently, the district has one school resource officer who works out of the high school. Superintendent Michael Patton said he plans to recommend the school board pursue the addition of a resource officer with the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department for the district’s schools outside Saratoga Springs city limits.
The consultant, from an organization that insures about half of the state’s school districts, also commended the district for its extensive safety protocols, saying the district was among the “top tier” in the state in terms of safety and security.
“You have a lot of expertise up here that’s worried about security and the well-being of your students,” said Bob Blaisdell, of the New York School Insurance Reciprocal, which conducted a recent safety assessment in the district.
During a question session of the forum, some attendees – there were about 200 total – pressed the panel on how removing armed grounds monitors would improve safety in the event of a school shooter or other violent attacks. Others pressed for more details about the preventative measures the district has in place or plans to pursue.
After the meeting, Patton said “all options” for improving security remained on the table and highlighted that there was broad support for a new resource officer, if not for re-arming the monitors. Asked about the assessment from Leffler and Catone that the schools are less safe now than when the monitors were armed, Patton said, "That’s their opinion.”