New Canaan's middle and elementary school students may have noticed something a bit different when they attended school this week: Stationed at the entrance of each school was a professional security monitor.
At the welcome desk to the left of the heavy double doors at Saxe Middle School stood Felipe Rodriguez, a retired police officer with close-cropped hair, thick arms and a thick neck. Rodriguez served for 21 years for the New York Police Department in the organized crime investigations unit. More recently, he worked as a campus monitor at Fairfield University.
"Our job is to make sure that nothing that doesn't belong in the building gets in the building," Rodriguez said Monday. "And God forbid, if it does, (that) we take care of it appropriately."
Indeed, entering the building during the off-peak hours between drop-off and dismissal is not easy. The thick entrance doors are locked, and visitors must buzz in. Upon entering the side entrance of the building, visitors are welcomed immediately and assertively by the second Saxe monitor, Nick Pallandino, who inspects photo IDs.
If a visitor were to walk from one security desk to another, the guards might check in with one another to make sure the visitor arrived at the correct destination.
Rodriguez explained that there would be a double-verification call between the two guards.
"Communication between the two (monitors) about visitors in the building would be part of the role of campus monitors," Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Gary Kass said.
The campus monitors are the New Canaan School District's most visible security upgrade following the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
After a robust discussion at its Feb. 28 meeting, the Town Council approved a special appropriation of $133,690 from the general fund and $144,931 from the school district, which took money from other projects in order to hire the monitors.
In addition to the monitors, the money went toward new locks and communications equipment for the schools. At that meeting, the council and the Board of Education agreed to meet again over the summer to discuss the efficacy of the campus monitor expenditures.
The monitors were hired from the firm DynCorp, a government services provider in the security field. The district had hoped to have the monitors start in early April, but their official start date was not until Friday, May 17. The last day of school is June 21, which gives the district about five weeks to assess the monitors.
"I think we're going to know really quickly, and given the caliber of the campus monitors, it's going to be a really successful match in our schools," Kass said in response to whether the school would have enough time to properly evaluate.
Not everyone agreed. The Town Council's Roger Williams, who was the most outspoken opponent of the security expenditures (though he voted in favor of the appropriation), had concerns about the time frame.
"I know that when the Board of Ed came before the Town Council, the idea was to have them in by April 1 so they could evaluate and go forward," Williams said in an interview. "I think only having five weeks experience is very unfortunate and may present issues with effectively measuring the monitors."
His sentiments were not shared by council member Steve Karl, who originally had issues with the "outsourcing" of the monitors to a security firm.
"This is one of the busiest times of the school year, with spring activities happening. There's enough coming and going to get enough of an idea of how the monitors are doing," Karl said. "Five weeks is a short snapshot, but hopefully we'll have an idea of how it's working and we'll rely on the Board of Ed for a report. My plan is to check in with principals."
Since the monitors started later than expected, Kass said unspent funds from the appropriation would be returned to the town.
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