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Now They Serve and Protect Schools

Wed, 11/22/2023 - 09:45

Retired police officers fill security guard roles in their own communities

Tom Pagano, right, a retired police sergeant who now heads security at the Springs School, is one of many retired law enforcement professionals serving school districts on the South Fork.
Springs School District

When it comes to protecting their students and employees — especially in light of the anonymous threats and mass shootings that seem to be ever more commonplace these days — public school districts on the South Fork are increasingly turning to retired police officers to fill critical security roles.

East Hampton, Sag Harbor, Amagansett, Springs, and Montauk are among the districts that already have former police officers standing watch as security guards, either hired directly by the districts or contracted via a private security firm within the last few years, and Bridgehampton is close to joining them.

With the hiring of former Sag Harbor Police Department Sgt. Tom Pagano in 2018, the Springs School District was among the first here to go this route.

“I think it’s a natural fit,” Mr. Pagano, now the Springs district’s lead security guard, said. “In the police department, everything was usually a combative situation. We dealt with people at their worst. Here it’s a nicer atmosphere. Kids, for the most part, are nice and they listen.”

The East Hampton School District contracts with Pondview Security, a local firm, to supplement a team of seven in-house, Civil Service-certified security guards with multiple retired police officers who had served in local law enforcement agencies. Adam Fine, the district superintendent, said the administration is now “beyond happy” with the level of security it has achieved.

“We had had really bad luck when it comes to hiring outside security,” Mr. Fine said. “We had UpIsland companies that were covering us. . . . They were inconsistent. They were allegedly either law enforcement or ex-military, but I did not find that to be the case.”

Now, “it has been an entirely different world of security, of safety, of ownership,” he said. “The Pondview people are here during the day, over the weekends, after hours. It was what we hoped it would be over the last decade from other companies. . . . These are people who have children in the schools or have gone through the schools themselves, who know the community. They’re familiar faces, and they’re responsive. That has been the big key.”

Pondview, through Mr. Fine, declined to comment, nor would it make any of its guards available for comment.

At least four of them are former East Hampton police officers, according to Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo. Officers are eligible to retire after 20 years on the job.

“Retired police officers make a great fit, with all of the training we provide them, and all of the knowledge and experience they bring to the job,” Chief Sarlo said.

He clarified that security guards are different from school resource officers, who are officially employed by police agencies to serve the school districts. “We love having retired officers on campus, as there is a familiarity and trust between our active officers and those retired,” Chief Sarlo said. “Our S.R.O.s work well with them. As a police supervisor it’s comforting to know they are on site, and as a parent I am glad to see this trend.”

Most of the retired officers serving districts do not carry firearms. Montauk is the only exception to this. Three retired police officers, all of whom carry weapons, take turns overseeing the campus there. Joshua Odom, the district superintendent, called it “a great model for us.”

“It’s a big asset for us,” Mr. Odom said. “They’re local people holding local jobs in a community where they know everyone and everyone knows them. They’re quick to notice something.”

School security guards in New York State are required by law to complete eight hours of “pre-assignment training” before they can be hired. Then they are required to log 16 hours of on-the-job training within 90 days, and must complete 16 more hours of field training over two years to maintain their certifications.

New York State Legislature records show that its Senate Education Committee is now evaluating a bill that would allow retired police officers to officially serve as armed school resource officers and would raise the cap on the income that a retired officer could make as a security guard while still retaining his or her full department pension.

In the Amagansett School District — where one school board member, Wayne Gauger, happens to be an active police officer with East Hampton Village — there are two retired officers watching over the school.

“They’re here when kids are arriving at school, when they’re out at physical education classes, and at recess out on the playground,” said Richard Loeschner, the interim superintendent. “They walk the perimeter of the building several times a day.”

In his previous school district, Brentwood, Mr. Loeschner oversaw 11 elementary schools, four middle schools, a freshman campus, and one high school, and employed what he said was “a huge security team” that included many retired police officers.

“The peace of mind is worth the money, especially since schools are considered soft targets for nefarious things,” he said, “so it makes sense.”

The Sag Harbor School District’s security team includes two retired police officers, one retired F.B.I. agent, and one current police officer who works security part time. There are seven guards watching over the district’s three campuses each school day.

“We put a premium on hiring full-time people and attached benefits to the position because we want people to make a commitment to be here for an extended period of time,” Sag Harbor’s superintendent, Jeff Nichols, said.

“I think it’s more about the person,” he said, rather than a specific law-enforcement background. “Still, it’s comforting,” he said. “Police officers have a background in security, and that’s an advantage.”

Bridgehampton’s superintendent, Mary Kelly, said this week that she is overhauling security procedures on campus. “We’re in the process of hiring security guards,” she said, “and retired law enforcement is exactly what I’m looking for.”


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