Sal Maniaci, executive director of Safety and Security for Rio Rancho Public Schools, admits it’s only an exaggeration that “99.9% of the bad stuff happens in the restrooms.”
And more of that “bad stuff” has been happening this school year than in previous school years. Maniaci wants it stopped and for parents to learn what’s going on in the schools their tax dollars help fund.
He doesn’t know the exact percentage of mayhem occurring in the restrooms of the district’s middle schools and high schools but does know “a majority of the situations we deal with occur in the restrooms.”
In an effort to combat the harm happening in the restrooms, security officers visit these places of refuge on an irregular basis, which, of course, disturbs some students and parents.
But, Maniaci contends, “Everything we do is to keep our students safe. It’s always about safety.
“The challenges are incredible, but we’re ready to face those challenges, tackle those challenges and persevere to make our students safer,” Maniaci pledged. “The majority of our students are such great kids.”
Maniaci ranked the order of the district’s problems, in which restrooms – often vacant and offering some solace – are where offenders are apprehended: “The biggest one we have is the use of vape pens,” he said without hesitation during a recent interview in his office.
When a student in possession of a vape pen is apprehended, it’s not immediately known if there’s a controlled substance, such as THC, in it.
“So, what we have to do is identify that the student has a vape pen in their possession, then we take them to the security office.” That’s where a test of the vape’s contents takes place.
“That predominantly is probably the biggest violation that we have,” said Maniaci, who has more than three decades in law enforcement and has been in his current position since March 2019. “We have seen it at the middle schools, certainly, but it is predominantly at the high schools. I wouldn’t say rare, but not as frequent.”
He doesn’t see security visits into the restrooms as an invasion of privacy but more as a measure of safety.
Once busted, students “admit everything; they accept their responsibility” and are channeled into the discipline matrix, as outlined in RRPS policies. “We have a very low recidivism rate.”
“I can tell you that I have heard from parents that their students are afraid to use the restrooms in our schools,” he said. “A couple reasons: One, is there are assaults and batteries occurring in restrooms. And students in the bathroom when a student is using a vape pen and then being accused of (ratting on the offenders).
“It creates a big problem, but I do believe the overall majority of parents appreciate the fact that Security is taking an active role on keeping tabs of drug use in our schools and making sure kids aren’t being bullied or battered in our schools.”
Related to the use of vape pens and controlled substances, he said, “My biggest fear is – and we’ve been very lucky so far – is overdoes.
“We’ve been able to provide these students with emergency medical care, and they’re fine,” he said, with school nurses and security personnel armed with Narcon to combat an overdose.
“Everything we do – everything we do – paramount is the safety of our students and staff.”
Second on his list is batteries.
“A lot of fights happen in the bathroom because it’s an area of concealment. You can get in a brawl in there and nobody knows unless someone walks in,” he said. “Of course, No. 3 is vandalism.”
That problem has been “curtailed quite a bit by increased presence in the restrooms,” referring to the TikTok challenge on social media a few years ago in which there was widespread damage to stall doors, soap dispensers and other restroom items.
Bus behavior seems to be improving, with the installation of cameras on all the buses, and fan behavior at athletic events is further down on his list.
“These are kids, students, and if we want them to behave well, I think their parents need to provide that example,” he said. “I think it’s a shame that most of the kids are fine; it’s just that we have issues with parent behavior.”
Weapons have been discovered on campuses, but not to the extent that it’s a major problem.
“That’s a challenge, because weapons are easily concealed: they can be concealed on their person, in their backpack.”
Technology steps up
Like most beneficial things for a school district, funding will be necessary for a step Maniaci would love to see taken.
“Right now, we are exploring … a system called Evolv, which is a weapons-detection system, which will give us the opportunity to be proactive in scanning for concealed weapons,” he said. “It’s a very simple system; it has like a slim antenna with a receiver on one end.
“The way it works is, it’s actually designed with artificial intelligence. It has algorithms built in for specific items of a firearm, of an IED – that’s what it looks for.
“It’s being used all over the country: Sports stadiums are using them, schools are using them, government offices are using them,” he said. “It’s not new technology by any means, but I think it’s time that we – the board and we – are very interested in it. … Putting in these errors, so the schools become impenetrable – making each layer that much more challenging for somebody to do harm to our students or staff.”
According to evolvtechnology.com, “Second only to the TSA, Evolv has screened over 425 million people across the world, allowing people to walk through security at the pace of life (and) eliminating soft targets caused by long security queues.”
The devices, the website notes, “are now in over 200 schools and 70 hospitals around the country” and are “keeping an average of 250 guns from entering their (customers’) venues daily.”
Maniaci termed Evolv as “a really neat product” and on the district’s radar.
“I think the community is going to be very excited about it.”
Evolv detectors aren’t as intrusive as typical metal detectors, he said, which is important.
“One of the hardest things … I have to deal with is keeping that balance, between keeping our schools a comforting, welcoming, educational environment, and then keeping them safe and secure – that’s a tough balance,” he said.
“We’re fortunate that we have a great relationship with the Rio Rancho Police Department,” Maniaci said. “The police department provides us with school resource officers (SROs), and they are just a tremendous asset for us. We have two stationed at each high school, and they’re responsible for the other schools as well. We work hand-in-hand with them.”
On Maniaci’s “wish list” are more funds for infrastructure improvements and more bodies for the security staff.
“I can’t do a darn thing without the support of the superintendent and the school board: amazing,” Maniaci concluded. “I don’t think I could have asked for a better environment to work in.
“I feel like it’s a challenge keeping students and staff safe, but I have support to do it and a team that is just remarkable.”