On the lookout: A behind-the-scenes look at the work of Public Safety

On the lookout: A behind-the-scenes look at the work of Public Safety

Vidhatrie Keetha and Neeva Patel

“We’re not up in the forefront. We stay very much in the background, and that’s the way we want it,” Assistant Director of Public Safety Peter Clancy said. “When the time comes when we need to step forward, we do that, we take control and we calm things down.”

Whether they are helping a student get on the bus safely or taking action during an emergency, the school’s Public Safety team aims to ensure that students feel safe every moment that they are at the school, Public Safety Specialist Glenn Smith said. The team is made up of 36 members, making it one of the largest departments in the school.

The team is composed of two directors, four supervisors, thirteen part-time officers, and 17 full-time officers. Almost all members of the school’s Public Safety team have previously held careers in law enforcement. 

Among the staff are ten retired police officers, two active duty police officers, three retired police lieutenants, one supervising fire marshal, one active duty fire marshall, two detectives, and one retired New York Police Department (NYPD) firefighter who was a police officer for ten years before joining the fire department, Director of Public Safety Mike McCaw said. McCaw himself was formerly a police captain in the NYPD.

McCaw has worked as a member of the school’s Public Safety team for fourteen years. Prior to working at the school, he served as Director of Security for the College of Mount St. Vincent, worked in the position of Assistant Director of Security Operations for New York University, and was the Commanding Officer of Transit Bronx Task Force with the NYPD. McCaw has worked with the police department for a total of 21 years and has also worked in educational institutions for 21 years, he said. 

Smith, a retired fireman and fire marshall, said that having had prior experience in law enforcement — such as experience as a police officer, court officer, or fireman — is a necessary prerequisite for working at the school, he said. “I was most likely hired due to my previous experience as a fire marshall because there I worked a lot with safety.”

Max Feng (10) thinks it is vital for Public Safety officers to have previous law enforcement experience, he said. “I do know that a lot of our Public Safety officers are retired firemen and policemen, which is good for knowing how to deal with a variety of situations.”

McCaw, who is in charge of hiring, intentionally selects members from a variety of professional law enforcement backgrounds with the approval of Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly, he said. “They bring a wealth of experience. It’s all about emergency response, handling medical emergencies, any serious and minor incidents and how to interact with the community.”

English teacher Brad Engelstein thinks those with law enforcement experience are appropriate for the job, he said. “I think the individuals on campus are responsible and exude a sense of confidence.”

Sofia Kim (10) feels safe knowing members of the Public Safety team are professionally trained and have the experience and the knowledge required to best protect the school, she said. “While there are obvious flaws within the police system, I think the officers we have on campus have been working here for a while and they strive to protect our school, so I would hope they still have those goals in mind.”

Although a candidate’s experience in educational institutions is an important factor in McCaw’s hiring process, the most important quality is a candidate’s personality and ability to interact with community members, he said.

 “The major part of our job here, probably 98 to 99 percent of our job, is public relations. How do we interact, and how do we help?” McCaw said. 

A candidate’s ability to blend into the background on campus is also taken into account when hiring, as it is an important part of how the team operates and responds to emergency situations. “A lot of us dress very casual, so we could look like a teacher. We can look like a coach in case somebody is watching and seeing what’s going on,” McCaw said, “We need people that are going to be friendly, and who are going to be kind, and in the event of an emergency, be able to step forward and take complete control of the situation.”

Engelstein has not had many interactions with Public Safety members, but he appreciates that they stay behind the scenes, he said. “I feel as if it would be a distraction from their state of permanent vigilance if they were to prioritize talking to teachers or students,” he said. 

Smith does try to talk to students when they enter the school because he rarely needs to use his emergency departmental skills. He has a Certified First Responder Defibrillation (CFR-D) credit from the fire department as well as other professional law enforcement experience but finds that his knowledge rarely comes into use during the school day, he said.

Although members of the team, such as Smith, have years of immediate response experience, the team’s daily operations rarely require the actual handling of major emergencies. 

Working in a school is more engaging for McCaw, he said. “The police department comes with a high level of stress, but there’s also anxiety and there’s pressures and there’s so many things going on in schools, colleges, universities,” he said. “So it’s a beautiful kind of transition, because we serve a purpose.”

Although the job still comes with a lot of responsibility,  Clancy finds that working at the school has been less stressful than his time as a police officer, he said. He has worked at the school for close to ten years, prior to which he worked for 25 years as a police sergeant for the NYPD. 

“We don’t want anything to happen to any member of our community, and we do a lot to prevent that from ever happening, so when you’re responsible for the safety of others it can be a little stressful,” Clancy said. “But it’s just more customer service paced — we’re here to help the community, and like in the police department, we’re there to help the citizens too.”

One incident during which the Public Safety team stepped forward happened around seven years ago and involved a woman who did not properly park her car. The woman’s car started rolling and as she went to jump into the car to try and stop it, she ended up getting caught underneath the car. “We all responded very quickly. We stabilized the scene, we stabilized the car, and we were in the process of removing her from underneath the car when the first responders arrived,” Clancy said. 

The situation also demonstrates the experience the team has, Clancy said. “We knew what to do. We knew that the scene had to be stabilized and that woman needed medical attention,” he said. “We were underneath the car keeping her calm, while other members were trying to jack up the car to get her out,” he said. “And luckily she wasn’t hurt. Very minor injuries.”

Because emergencies do not happen frequently, Julia Werdiger (10) thinks the team has expanded more than they need to, she said. “I don’t remember the last time where I was scared for my life or when the team stepped in, maybe it’s happened, and I just don’t know it,” she said. 

This method reflects the Public Safety team’s approach, McCaw said. “It’s a team method. It’s comprehensive and every component works together. So if you think of a puzzle, it’s putting puzzle pieces together. My job is to obviously manage it,” he said. 

A typical day for Clancy mostly involves overseeing daily operations. “Probably one of the busiest parts of our day is the arrival with the students and faculty and staff coming in, coordinating the buses coming in and out, controlling the traffic and making sure the students get across the street safely, and just making sure all of our equipment is up and running — our camera systems, our access control devices and different things like that,” he said.

Public Safety Trainer Rob Aviles, who manages the security in Lutnick Hall, uses cameras to piece together stories and look for situations or people that might need assistance, he said. “Although we help members of our own student body, we also look out for anyone that shouldn’t be on campus,” he said. “Cameras are tools used to identify and also respond to emergencies so that we can intercept them before they can even happen.”

The team keeps a lookout for anything that might negatively affect students, Smith said. “We go to every medical emergency there is at the school and we monitor what’s going on outside the school, to make sure it stays outside the school,” he said. “We respond to anything that’s out of the ordinary and do drills like the fire and lockdown drills the school has.”

Along with drills, to ensure that students are familiar with protocols at the start of the year, the Public Safety team hosts the annual safety assembly, introducing members of the team and showing safety videos.

While the team has a number of other measures in place, McCaw intentionally does not present all this information at the assembly, to avoid the risk of exposing the team’s procedures to potential bad actors. “We don’t know where [that] information is going to go,” he said. “So, we talk to you, I’m not telling you about everything that we have. I wouldn’t tell anybody about everything that we have.”

Giselle Paulson (11) finds the information shared in the assembly repetitive. “I can’t say I’ve noticed the reactions of other people, but I assume that like me, they know all this info already, so I don’t think it’d be a stretch to say they’re less engaged in this assembly than others,” she said. “However, they’re actually more engaged in the video than normal, because everyone loves the ‘sorry I have a bus to catch’ line.” 

Along with hosting the annual assembly, the team is responsible for making sure students leave school safely at the end of each day. “Arrival and dismissal, that’s when you’re mixing school buses with cars and students and crossing the streets and it brings a whole set of scenarios that could turn really bad really quick,” McCaw said. “So we have to manage that completely.”

While monitoring cameras during arrival, dismissal, and throughout the day, McCaw watches for anything out of the ordinary, he said. “Let’s say there’s a suspicious person that we need to keep an eye on, or a traffic hazard, we can watch it and we can make calls to let’s say 911 and get additional services if needed.”

To Aviles, “suspicious” is a general term, and the team usually identifies when someone is a danger to the school using their judgment as retired law enforcement, he said. The team does not have a specific “look” that they deem suspect, but identification is more so based on the behavior of people and narratives of the day, he said. “If we have a football game that day, we have to stay more vigilant since parents and other individuals are entering the campus who are not here on a daily basis.”

Because most of the team has worked at the school for a period of time, Aviles finds that the team is generally aware of the cues and cultures that comprise the typical rhythm of life on campus. “It’s funny when you live in a world of unison, the odd thing presents itself to you,” he said, “If an individual is on campus, I ask myself, ‘why is this person continuing to stare in this direction?’” 

Aviles looks out for subtleties when visitors come to campus, he said. “If someone says that they came to the school 25 years ago and explain that they are lurking outside campus just admiring the new structures, they might want to get into the school,” he said.

Alara Yilmaz (10) also feels that the team handles emergencies well, although she does not know much about the team’s operations, she said. “Especially with recent events, if something like a school shooting were to happen, cameras and other technology would be very helpful and effective.”

In addition to managing daily operations, a major part of operating the Public Safety team is research. “If any violent incidents occur in schools, we research it, we look into it, we all discuss it to see if we need to tweak any of our security systems,” Clancy said. After the school shooting occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018, the team conducted an in-depth analysis on mass casualty incidents, he said. “Any kind of mass casualty incident we evaluate it to see what we can learn from it, and what we can change and we have changed things in the past.”

Some of these changes include announcing fire drills before they happen, tweaking lockdown drills, and informing students, faculty, and staff how to respond to an emergency situation, McCaw said. The team recently changed its lockdown procedure in response to a strategy used during the shooting at Oxford High School on November 30, 2021. The shooter knocked on locked doors and urged students to come out of hiding by pretending to be the police, McCaw said. “We modified our procedures based on that. Our procedure before was that the police will come and knock on the door, and then you open the door, so we had to change that.”

Generally, in response to any instance of school violence — including school shootings — the Public Safety office puts together a detailed review of the event, Kelly wrote in an email. The review typically summarizes how the school would have responded to the event, as well as the areas where the school might have fallen short. From the review comes a list of recommendations for Kelly and the board to consider, he wrote. 

Aviles thinks it is important to stay current and change procedures without students being tipped or gaining knowledge of those changes, he said. “Most people don’t realize that we are armed or even understand what we do everyday, and that’s fine, that’s actually what we want,” he said. “However, when the school needs someone to respond and react, they want people with expertise who wear many different hats.” 

Anyone who speaks to Aviles would see him talking about different tactics to combat threats, he said. “Most people assume that by ‘tactics’ I mean kicking and fighting, but it is more so just going over hypothetical scenarios to increase our default response,” he said. The team often practices active shooter scenarios to prepare for a situation that could potentially happen, he said.

In addition to an adjustment of procedures, the Public Safety team recently lobbied for and installed a traffic light at the intersection in front of the school, a process which took 17 months, McCaw said. The delay occurred because the team needed to first communicate with the bureaucracy of the NYC Department of Transportation. “Before the light could be installed, a traffic survey was required and after that, the case was moved to planning and installation which took more time,” he said. 

Before the traffic light was installed, all vehicular traffic was controlled by a four-way stop sign, but to McCaw, the light is a more efficient way of managing traffic, he said. “[We felt] somebody was gonna get seriously hurt with cars going through those stop signs and not paying attention to them,” he said. “It’s for us, and it helps the community also. Any benefit that comes to the school ultimately benefits the people that live in this area.”

However, Kim wishes the team had done a better job communicating with the school community about the unplanned fire drills that occurred in February, she said. For both drills, she was in Fisher Hall, when told to evacuate, where the fire alarm was triggered. 

“[Unannounced fire drills] happened two times within a week, so I think there should have been a statement sent out, just because we kind of moved on and I didn’t really know what was going on, I mean, I saw a fire truck at school,” she said. Although she is fine with planned drills, Kim hopes the team will do more to inform the community about serious or unexpected situations in the future.

Along with improving protocol, the Public Safety team has put forward a number of technological changes in the school’s security systems. When Clancy first started working at the school, the team did not have advanced technology apart from cameras and automatic dual locking systems, he said. Recently, Clancy has noted that the team’s technology has expanded, and they continue to research new technology to help keep our community safe, he said.

Public Safety Systems Analyst Anthony Trotta is responsible for managing all of the security systems on campus, including cameras and any access control points or technology the teams use in their day-to-day operations, he said. 

According to Trotta, the school currently has over 620 cameras installed across its three campuses, including the nursery division and Dorr, he said. “Our goal hasn’t been to have 620 cameras, but we’ve achieved this number through frequent evaluations of our campus layout and available technology,” he said. All guards on duty are stationed at a post or a desk, which are located, for example, in Olshan Lobby or beside the entrance to Lutnick. Each post is equipped with a surveillance system behind the desk, which shows the different angles of a certain location. The stationed Public Safety staff view cameras within the vicinity of their post. 

Having cameras constantly watching her at school does not unsettle Kim in the slightest. In fact, she thinks having strict security around campus is comforting, she said. “It honestly doesn’t affect my performance in school knowing I’m on camera, I’m not doing anything stupid so I feel comfortable,” she said. “It is good that there are cameras in the hallways and in public areas where there are a lot of kids because the team can watch many people at once and see if there is an intruder who might target those areas.”

Prior to working at the school, Trotta worked for two years at Triad Security Systems, which is the company that sells the school its security systems. “I was fortunate enough to be offered a job to actually come work for the school and basically be the contact person for all security systems related,” Trotta said. “We still use Triad Security Systems as our vendor and our backend support for anything that we may need for any sort of replacement devices. And I manage projects on a day to day basis with that company.”

Working at the school has been a new experience for Trotta, he said. While he has never worked in an educational institution before, he enjoys being a part of a Public Safety team, rather than going to various jobs in a vehicle as he would in his previous job.

 “We have all the tools that we need to make sure that this campus is protected. And I’m not talking about just the physical campus itself. I’m talking about the students, the faculty, and everybody that’s involved with this community,” Trotta said. “That’s how it is different. I’ve never been able to say that I’m part of something that’s so vital to protecting an institution like this and everybody gets involved. So it’s a pleasure to be working here. It really is.”

One of the ways the teams keeps vigilant is through their surveillance footage and camera systems. “So let’s say for example, we have Mr. Aviles in Lutnick, so he’ll be using the camera system and looking at the cameras in his area, Lutnick Hall and Prettyman Gym. He also has access to the access control software system. Now what that does is that’s all the electronic door locking card readers, things of that nature,” Trotta said. 

Yilmaz said it is unnecessary to place cameras everywhere — for example, at the entrances of bathrooms — because she cannot think of a reason why it would matter who exits and enters that space, she said. “I sometimes feel like cameras at places like that infringe on my privacy, but then again, I think there are only two security members watching me so I don’t really care.”

The abundance of surveillance systems helps Aviles identify threats before they get to the school, he said. “I have really never looked at footage while the students are here and seen someone already on campus that shouldn’t be there, we prevent it before,” he said. 

However, one such incident did occur on November 20, 2019, when an intruder came onto campus at night posing as a student. “One of our midnight guards went up to the intruder, asked them of their whereabouts, and eventually the police were called and the suspect was taken into custody — they had no right to be on campus,” Aviles said. Because of situations such as this one, which might happen when students are not on campus, the team has a group of security members at school from 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. every day, he said.

Each location can perform a lockdown and are equipped with radios that can communicate with each other. “They also listen to the police scanner radios too, so we can hear what’s going on in the neighborhood,” Trotta said. “ If there’s anything that we need to take notice of in this area of the Bronx, the five zero precinct is what responds to this area. So we always listen to their radio communications.”

Overall, Trotta believes that from a Public Safety viewpoint, the school is the safest school in the country, he said.“Technologically, we’ve grown. I was able to bring a lot of myself, I think I was able to bring a lot of technological skill to where we need to be, as far as a technological standpoint and how we can best use technology as a major tool within our arsenal of other tools that we have,” he said. The team’s technological growth has been expanding for the past twelve years, he said. Trotta urges himself to constantly research new innovations that are introduced to the field and analyze how they can be applied to Public Safety, he said. 

The added cameras and new technology also assist Smith during his job. Smith has worked at the school for seven years and spends most of his time behind the desk in Olshan Lobby, he said. When Smith comes into school in the mornings, he opens up all the doors, makes sure all the computers and cameras are up and running, and greets students as they arrive. 

Kayla Choi (10) is sometimes greeted by Smith in the mornings when she enters school, but to her, the interactions with safety members are not daily occurrences, she said. “When I say hi, they say hi, that’s all it really is, but at the same time I don’t expect them to help me with any personal issues, so I think they reach out as much as they need to,” she said. 

During the school day, Smith mostly answers the phone, monitors the camera, and runs dismissal at 2 p.m. Dismissals are the busiest part of Smith’s day, and ever since the pandemic, dismissals have been much more chaotic and busy, he said. “More parents are coming to pick students up, which is one of the reasons why we have a group of members of Public Safety working out there instead of just one or two like before,” he said. 

Whether he is working near the buses or simply at the front desk, Smith wants more students to be able to approach him whenever they have a problem they need to resolve, he said. “It doesn’t matter if they are having an emotional problem or something else, I always try to keep an eye out to see someone who is crying or anything similar to that,” Smith said. “Also, if they have questions, they should feel free to ask, our team is here to help, not really for any other reason.”

The interactions Yilmaz has had with members of Public Safety have mostly been positive, she said. “One time I lost my earrings at a basketball game and when I went to the public security office, they had them right there which was so nice,” she said. Yilmaz also appreciates Aviles who waits with students for the 6 o’clock bus, she said. “He opens the door for us and says goodnight, which always makes my day a little bit better,” she said.

The school’s Public Safety department has grown and expanded to the point that it has become unrecognizable from the school’s original Security Office in 2005, when Kelly first started working at the school, he wrote. “Everything and anything has changed within the now-Office of Public Safety,” he wrote. In light of the world around us, and continued instances of grotesque school violence, our Public Safety Office and the quality and caliber of its officers continues to evolve with the times.”

Specifically, the department has changed its hiring qualifications, established annual training for all officers, improved technology relating to supervision, fire safety, and gunshot management, and improved equipment used in emergency situations, Kelly wrote. “Everything has shifted for the better, for the safer. Even our drills with students and employees and those resources attributed to our lockdown procedures have been dramatically enhanced,” he wrote. 

Kelly declined to comment on the specifics of how the school allocates a budget and resources to the Public Safety department.“It is important to know that the Office is well-funded, and its initiatives are a priority in the budget process,” he wrote. 

Ever since the pandemic began, the Public Safety team has expanded in terms of members and budget, Smith said. “The team has definitely grown, it’s almost doubled in people ever since they closed off the school a little more, we used to have a more open campus and now there are fences all around.”

The school granted the team this expansion because of the precautions that came with the pandemic as well as the number of school shootings around the country, Smith said. “If you watch the news, you can tell that shootings are way up now, so school safety is extremely important to us and we are working to make sure we protect students from these types of threats,” he said. In the last five years alone, the U.S. has had over 2,000 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Aviles stands by the rule that “more is better,” so adding extra personnel and security systems to protect the school is ideal, he said. “If you are afforded the opportunity to be able to increase your systems, why would we not?” 

Werdiger instead thinks that additions should only be made if they are necessities, she said. “If there are some areas in the school which are un-secure and don’t have cameras stationed, then yes, the school should make those changes, but if they are not needed, then we shouldn’t add them just because we can,” she said.

To Kim, this expansion in budget makes sense and safety should be prioritized by the school more. “Our academics, athletics, and arts are all important, but the number one priority should be our safety,” she said. “Once we have established that, we can turn our focus onto other advancements of the school, which is why the team deserves such a big budget.”

At first, the team had most of its security members stationed in large buildings, but as years passed, the school realized that smaller spaces should also have personnel, Aviles said. “God forbid something does happen, we don’t want to have a gap or a bridge in our abilities to sequence the cameras,” he said. “I stay vigilant because I enjoy helping students live the simpler way in life, and we humans tend to live life in fear, which we shouldn’t be doing,” he said.

Feng does not find himself living in fear on a daily basis, but instead accepts the possibility that something might happen, although it is a rare thought for him, he said. 

In terms of members, the team has added part-time officers for dismissal, officers working at midnight, and officers working in the afternoon, Smith said. “At night, we used to only have one person, but now we have two people working around the clock, and in the afternoon, we have expanded from three people to five,” he said. “The school is also starting to have more events on weekends so with the help of our part-time workers, the guys who are full-time don’t have to work during the tours on the weekends.”

Another form of team expansion is the addition of trained officers who help the team work better together as a whole, Smith said. “We have a couple guys who used to train in the police department so instead of having outside guys visit us over the summer break, we have our own people who can train us,” he said. “Also, we have a guy who used to work as a police officer and lieutenant in a school division, so as a professional in education, he helps us work together better.” 

At each training session, Aviles, who conducts the training, usually goes over traffic patterns, challenges the team faces, basic CPR skills, and active shooter scenarios, he said. “If there is anything I want our team to remember, it is the process of identification and response,” he said. The team also does location training in preparation for times when students aren’t at school, like in the summer, Aviles said. “It’s important for us to be on campus even when students are gone because those are some of the best times for outsider threats to plot an attack or plant something,” he said.