Security guards, in addition to the district's two school resource officers, are stationed at each of the four schools
PORTSMOUTH — Some rambunctious kindergartners were in line waiting to return to their classroom at Hathaway Elementary School on Thursday. In the hallway surveying the fidgeting kids was Chris Moy, a towering, bear of a man.
Despite the imposing figure he cuts, his face lights up at the scene playing out in front of him. A bright smile creased across his face, Moy exchanges fist bumps and high-fives as the group passes by.
Moy is Hathaway’s school security officer, a position created by the School Committee in the fiscal 2019 budget. Like the men assigned to the position at the district’s three other schools, he is a retired police officer.
The school security officers complement the two school resource officers from the Portsmouth Police Department who are stationed at the district’s schools.
The security officers, who are not armed, are tasked with “maintaining order and discipline, preventing crime and investigating violations of school rules or policies,” according to a definition provided by Allan Garcia, the School Department’s residency and truant officer and coordinator of safety and security. Security officers within the school report to Garcia.
Moy’s foremost job is protecting the school community and taking swift action in the event of a safety threat. Around 6:30 or 7 every morning, Moy walks the perimeter of the school building and through the halls, making sure everything is just right before the school day begins. He monitors the high-resolution video feeds from the school’s security cameras on his phone and oversees dismissal, making sure pick-up is a smooth process for parents and guardians.
Watching how the security officers interact with students, though, it is clear they are much more than a guard posted at the main entrance keeping track of who is coming into the building. They are sounding boards, confidants, mediators and advisers.
The addition of the security officers was one of the steps taken by school leaders after an incident at the high school this past January. A man allegedly punched and kicked a teacher after being denied access to the gymnasium building. He allegedly had a military-style knife in his possession at the time of the attack.
The incident added a sense of urgency for school officials to accelerate planned safety enhancements at the schools, according to Superintendent Ana Riley. “It can’t happen in our backyard until it does,” she said.
“I’m not sure we can ever say we’re safe enough,” she told The Daily News on Thursday at Portsmouth Middle School. She noted, however, that she does not know of another district in Rhode Island that has all the safety implements Portsmouth has.
“I’m really proud of where we’ve gotten to in a short amount of time,” Riley said.
Each of the schools is outfitted with surveillance cameras and buzzers visitors must push before front-office staff members remotely unlock the main entrance to let them in. Five security “towers” have been installed on the campuses, with two at the high school and one at each of the others. Pushing a red button on the tower connects to police personnel.
“It's like a cellphone that dials one number, the front desk at the Portsmouth police,” Garcia previously explained.
And the main foyer at each school has been converted into a glass vestibule where visitors enter before proceeding to the main office. If an intruder attempts to enter the building, they can be locked into the area.
The security officers serve as Garcia’s eyes and ears about what’s happening inside the schools. They look at things through a different “lens” because of their law enforcement backgrounds, Riley said.
They go above and beyond the responsibilities spelled out in their job description, Garcia said.
“It was important to me they have the ‘shepherd of the flock’ DNA,” he said. “This is a cerebral job more than anything.” All of the security officers are in their 50s, meaning they bring ample work and life experience to the job, Garcia added.
Dave Dyson, the security officer at Portsmouth High School, has built a rapport with the students and established himself as someone they seek out for guidance. One aspect of the job he takes pride in is when a student “won’t talk to anyone else and they’ll talk to you.”
Melissa Harrington, a behavioral specialist at the high school, said Dyson fills a void as a trusted adult who is not in a traditional educational role. “I feel it offers [students] a different perspective — someone who is not a teacher, someone who is not an administrator, just like a behavioral specialist,” she said Thursday.
John Ferreira, who is the security officer at Melville Elementary School, said he uses his experience working in group homes and volunteering with youth programs in the south side of Providence to teach students about conflict resolution and to think more before they act.
“If you don’t like to apologize, don’t do anything you know is going to cause you to apologize,” Ferreira said, offering a piece of advice he often shares with the students.
For Dyson and Joseph Mattera, the Portsmouth Middle School security officer, the job is an opportunity to meld two career paths they pursued: education and law enforcement.
Before becoming a police officer, Dyson was a health and physical education teacher at an elementary school. Mattera went to college to get his teaching degree, but had trouble securing a full-time teaching position before turning to law enforcement.
“This is a unique program to get involved in, something I wanted to be a part of,” Mattera said. “It’s a great model for the rest of the state. The legislature needs to look at what’s happening here. … I haven’t had a bad day. It’s enjoyable interacting with the children.”
“It’s not a job if you love what you do,” Dyson said. “I don’t consider this a job. I consider it a privilege to be here.”