There was a knock at the door, and in walked school counselor Kiana Darby, accompanied by a nervous first grader. She was taking the student on a walk through the halls to help him calm him down when they happened upon the office of head Lynchburg City Schools (LCS) school security officer (SSO) Nick Caputo. The student’s anxious eyes scanned the room as Darby explained that he was having trouble adjusting to his first year at Bedford Hills Elementary School.
It’s Caputo’s first year at Bedford Hills, too, and he remembers the interaction well. The student’s gaze locked on the mannequin in the corner of the room, and his tense demeanor gave way to curiosity. “Why is he wearing that?”
The mannequin was decked out in flight gear, a relic from Caputo’s years as an army helicopter pilot. He explained how the equipment worked—even let the student dig in the uniform pockets and test out the tools—and shared stories from his military days. The student peppered Caputo with questions until it was time to go back to class, forgetting himself in his enthusiasm.
Caputo and the student became fast friends. Darby told Caputo he gave the student something to look forward to at school, easing the transition to his new environment.
These are Caputo’s favorite moments on the job. Operating full-time in elementary schools since he started in February, Caputo has quickly formed bonds with the teachers, students, and administrators he’s sworn to keep safe.
“They know they can ask me anything. I’ve even been called in to get rid of a spider in the classroom,” Caputo jokes. “I work hard to be a safe person to talk to.”
As the chief elementary safety official at LCS, Caputo oversees two other SSOs: Jim Scott and Steven Sensabaugh. All three are former law enforcement officers whose extensive field experience and school-specific training equip them to protect staff and students and enforce school policies.
School Security Officers (left to right): Nick Caputo, Jim Scott and Steven Sensabaugh
They’re the pioneers of the new SSO program at LCS, funded by a four-year grant from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS). Soon, they’ll be joined by additional officers. Until then, the LCS elementary schools will share the three SSOs.
“I think the kids see stories about violence in schools on the news, and that causes some fear,” says Scott, whose past career as a military police officer solidified his passion for protecting children. “I want students to see me in the hallway and be comforted by the fact that someone’s watching out for them.”
The program was introduced to meet the need for additional security at LCS elementary schools. Each LCS secondary school has a School Resource Officer (SRO), or a law enforcement officer employed by the Lynchburg Police Department (LPD) and assigned to a school. Without SROs at the elementary level, there were approximately 4,000 elementary students without the same level of protection afforded to middle and high school students. The SSO program is changing that.
Like SROs, SSOs cultivate a safe learning environment for students, staff, and guests. There’s one key difference: SSOs aren’t employed by the LPD. They have the same training as LPD officers, but they’re employees of the LCS School Board. Unlike SROs, who may sometimes need to leave their posts at the schools to assist the LPD with competing demands, SSOs’ sole responsibility is to their assigned schools.
“Having a highly trained officer to continuously monitor our campus and immediately respond to potential threats helps us all feel safe so we can focus on teaching and learning,” says Bedford Hills principal Sherri Steele.
The DCJS requires all Virginia SSOs to undergo a rigorous state certification program and receive training through local law enforcement agencies. At LCS, SSOs receive training that far exceeds the minimum requirements. They’re equipped to protect students, staff, and visitors in crises; mediate conflicts; assess potential threats; administer first aid; protect students with disabilities; keep students with mental health challenges safe; and more.
Hiring and training SSOs at all elementary schools is just the beginning for Caputo. Already, he’s working to streamline safety procedures across the division, from visitor check-in processes to collaboration with the LPD.
“This job is a dream for me. An SSO’s work is to preserve the sanctity of the school, and I don’t take that lightly,” Caputo says.