Santa Fe schools looking for holes in security

September 24, 2018

As public schools nationwide beef up security in response to school shootings, including a deadly incident in Aztec in December, the security chief at the Santa Fe district says he’s been wrangling with an array of safety issues that could make schools vulnerable.

During campus visits over the past month, Mario Salbidrez told the school board at a recent meeting, he and his team discovered a lack of security guards at some sites, homeless people camping out in a playground at one site and broken radios.

Some employees are leaving doors propped open, creating the possibility of an unwelcome visitor, said Salbidrez, a former deputy chief of the Santa Fe Police Department.

But Salbidrez said he wouldn’t send his children to Gonzales Community School — or another Santa Fe Public Schools facility — if he thought it was not safe, he said. But there are concerning weaknesses, he told board members last week.

“I’m not gonna hide some of the challenges,” Salbidrez said, adding that he and his team are addressing the issues immediately.

Board President Steven Carrillo frequently tells constituents who attend board meetings that public schools are safe.

He reiterated that sentiment in response to Salbidrez’s security report last week, saying, “The community gets confused between day-to-day safety and what happens when that one person goes to a store, buys a rifle and goes nuts.”

In an interview, Salbidrez said he and his team conduct site visits frequently. “We spend more time in the schools than in the office, which is better customer service,” he said.

On a recent visit to E.J. Martinez Elementary School, the team found evidence people had been sleeping in the playground area. They had “dug under the playground,” Salbidrez told the board. “… They had blankets, pillows, everything else.”

A call to Santa Fe police fixed the problem, he said.

Staff members at the school also trimmed back brush around the perimeter of the school to prevent the problem from recurring, he added.

The security guard shortage also has been resolved. Until last week, Salbidrez said, the district’s security contractor, Securitas Security Services, had struggled to fill vacant guard positions but now has a full force in place.

The district switched to Securitas in recent months after discovering some of the guards working at schools through its previous contractor, AJF, did not have proper documentation of background checks.

Under its contract with Securitas, the district pays the firm about $700,000 for 23 guards at various school sites and for other security measures.

Robert Marfia Jr., branch manager for the Securitas firm, said in an email that the company has received a limited number of applications for Santa Fe jobs, “and to overcome that concern we have temporarily brought officers in from outside Santa Fe.”

His firm will continue to work to provide “the staffing necessary to help maintain a safe environment for the students and staff,” Marfia said.

Salbidrez said he has been reviewing background check records for all Securitas guards to ensure they are up to date.

Among the steps taken this year to improve security districtwide is installation of a visitor identification system that can ferret out sex offenders. The district also installed RhinoWare Door Barricade devices on all classroom doors and overhauled procedures for lockdown, shelter-in-place and fire drills.

Those drills generally have been conducted while students are in class, but soon schools will hold drills between classes, when students are moving in the hallways and during lunch.

“In a perfect world, if something goes wrong in a school, we would hope all the students are in their class, but we know that is not always the case,” Salbidrez said.

“It’s going to be controlled chaos when we try these new drills,” he added, “but we are going to learn a lot about our weak points and find solutions to improve communication and safety problems.”

The principals of the district’s two largest high schools said they like the new drill plan.

“The students are the ones who often feel the most unsafe and are the most vulnerable in those situations when they are in the hallway or in the bathroom,” said Capital High School Principal Mariah Runyan.

Several of her students recommended this new approach last year, she said.

Carrillo said he was concerned about safety at school sports events. Salbidrez said his team is looking at ways to deal with that.

“That is something that is on our radar … including how do we drill for those events,” García said.

The district hired Salbidrez, a 20-year veteran of law enforcement, in the spring.

At the time, Superintendent Veronica García said, “I feel that the world we live in now with security concerns … having someone with his crisis management experience and on-the-ground experience, he will be a tremendous asset to our team.”

Salbidrez has since hired former Santa Fe police Capt. Mark Lewandowski to serve as the district’s emergency management supervisor.

Capital High School senior Cesar Arroyo said he feels safer this year than he did last year, in part because of the new security guards and also because he has seen staff check doors and update access codes to ensure the doors stay locked.

Still, he said he would prefer having armed officers on campus.

So far, school board members have not shown an interest in hiring current or former law enforcement officers to serve in such positions, often called school resource officers.

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