Christine Baez is uniquely connected to her Brooklyn community. Not only does she do a job that only exists in New York, but she lives in the home she was born and raised in, now with a daughter of her own. As a School Safety Officer, Christine is responsible for the wellbeing of every child and teacher in the building. A responsibility she thrives on.
You are a born and bred New Yorker …
I was born in Brooklyn, and raised in this house that I’m living in now! I’ve seen all the changes that have come through the neighborhood. When I was little it was all mom and pop stores, and always a lot of pizza shops. For a while everyone vacated, and the streets were empty for years. After 8pm you wouldn’t want to be out and about. About 8 years ago, it started to change into what it is now. Bars, clubs, restaurants … it’s so different. It’s strange to think my daughter is growing up in the same home I did, but her experience of it will be completely different.
My parents moved into the neighborhood a few years before I was born and bought this house. Obviously it was a lot cheaper back then to buy! My dad passed in 1997, and my mom in 2012. So now myself and my daughter live here.
Did you do all your schooling here in Brooklyn?
Yes, I went to York College and studied Education, but obviously I didn’t go into teaching! Actually I did it for a year and didn’t like it at all. My first job as a teacher was a class of kindergarteners. I didn’t realize how much patience it would take (laughs). Now I have a child, I realize that children are so energetic all the time, their attention spans are so short! But having a whole classroom of 4-5 years was too much for me. I went in thinking they would all sit still and listen to me because I was the teacher! Once they graduated to the next school year, I was like “I’m out of here”.
During that year of teaching I was also working part time at a clothing store called Fashion Bug. School would finish at 2.20pm, and I would go straight there. I was promoted to Store Manager, so thankfully when I left teaching I had that to fall back on. I did that for a couple of years before my mom gave me an application to apply to be a School Safety Agent. Her friend was one, and they both thought it would be a good fit for me. To be honest I didn’t think much of it, I filled it out and kept forgetting to mail it. It just sat in my car for months. My mom’s friend kept bugging me and eventually I just dropped it into the post and thought nothing more of it until a few months later when they called me. Then I learned that it was a very tough process to go through to become an Agent.
What was the process like?
It was very intense. The first step is a panel interview, where you sit in front of a table of NYPD officers and they grill you about why you want to become a School Safety Agent and your work and life history. My palms were sweating!
I can imagine!
They were like “Have you ever been arrested? Do you agree with the law? Are you on the side of the police?” I honestly didn’t think I’d make it through the next stage, but I got called back for the written exam. I passed that, and went through to the agility/fitness test, then the psychological test. Each step I didn’t think I would get through, and then it became a persona challenge for myself just to see how far I could go.
At what point did you decide it was what you wanted to do?
To be honest I’m not sure. My whole life I have always approached things in a way that I will always say yes, until I have to say no if that makes sense. At the end of all the tests, they told me I would start at the academy, and I said yes again!
Did you go to the police academy?
Yes, but to a program specific to School Safety Agents. It was full time for four months. In the morning we had classroom lessons, and then afternoon was fitness. It was really intense. They would scream at you all the time. I pretty much cried for the whole first two weeks because of the stress. I would call my boyfriend and say “I can’t take this any more”. He was in the army, and then also went through the police academy, and he was so helpful and encouraging. He told me I could do it, that I had to suck it up and essentially play the game. They weren’t being mean to us, they were testing us, and preparing us. After the first 2 weeks I realized he was right. They were just trying to break you, so that the people who couldn’t take it were weeded out. I turned it around to my advantage, and showed them the best of me. I showed them that I was there to learn everything they had to offer. And it was fun after that, I loved it.
When I graduated I was assigned to the Harry Van Arsdale High School, which is so close to my neighborhood. I was so scared going there for my first day, but everybody there took me under their wings. It was challenging but really fun. The old timers there showed me what it was to be a good School Safety Agent.
How would you describe what you do to someone who hasn’t heard of it before?
Essentially we make sure everybody in the school is safe. We sign people in, we make sure we everybody has an ID and a reason to be at the school. Even parents trying to get up to meet with principles, sometimes need to be okayed. Obviously there are sometimes challenges with parents getting upset with the administration, or with other parents.
We’re there to protect the staff, the kids and each other. At that school there were 12 agents. There is a sergeant, who is in charge of all the agents at the school. We break up fights between students as well. Obviously there is a lot of that in schools. Especially now with social media. Kids will post things about each other, and it comes to a head at school when they see each other in the hallways.
You must have experienced all the changes with the kids and social media …
During my first posting, social media was just starting. It’s definitely gotten worse since social media has become mainstream.
In some schools, like the first school I was in kids weren’t allowed to bring their phones to school. There were metal detectors at the door, and each person who enters the building is scanned with a hand wand and belt scanner, their bags are also scanned. Kids would have to hand over their phones as they entered the school, and they would get them back afterwards. If there was an emergency then of course they had access to the school phones. Each school is different though in terms of their rules.
As an agent you work different roles in the schools. Sometimes you do entry and scanning, you patrol the floors, you watch the security cameras.
So interesting, I didn’t realize how many were working in each school.
There’s usually about 12 of us in that first school. But in my next posting, there were only 2-3 of us. That was at a junior high school. I really liked it there. It’s interesting seeing kids at that age, they’re just starting to come into their own. They’re slowly becoming their own person, but they are still very much children.
So they’re just starting to get mean to each other (laughs).
Oh, it’s the worst! They’re often trying to prove that they’re growing up, so they often do that by lashing out at each other. It’s also the age where they are just starting to not listen to teachers and grown ups all the time. In elementary school, teachers are in charge. When the teacher asks for quient, the children are quiet. They mostly listen to their parents, but that all changes in junior high! It’s the first time they can walk between classes themselves, and often to school if they live close. It’s a recipe for a hormonal disaster (laughs). It really is the biggest time of change.
I’ve honestly never heard of of a School Safety Agent before speaking with you … is it just an American thing?
It’s actually just a New York thing!
Why do you think that is?
The only thing that I could possibly think of is that we are trained by NYPD, who are the only police department to have a program like this. It makes sense in such an urban city like New York, but I don’t know why it hasn’t been picked up in other states.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your job?
You know, kids will be kids. They'll fight anywhere, anytime! You have to get to know them quickly so you can work with them. The other challenge, especially when starting at a new school is to recognize who enters and exits the building. You have to get to know the school very fast. Once you do, you can more accurately and quickly assess who shouldn’t be there. When you start at a new school, that is when it’s most stressful because your guard is way up all the time. Anybody who comes in could be a stranger because you don’t know anybody yet. We are the stopping point for anyone who could be trying to enter the building. We are who will be stopping an intruder from entering. Its’a big responsibly, but I love it. Becoming a school safety agent was the best decision I've made. We’re respected in the community, and people appreciate and know what we do. It’s funny because we work very closely with the NYPD, and they’ll often say “I could never do what you do”. They’ll go and break up riots, and shootings and they're so intimidated by a building full of kids! (laughs)
It’s also an amazing job because it allows me to be with my daughter. I have the weekends and evenings with her. That is so important to me. Especially when she is old enough to go to school, we’ll be on the same schedule. Being here with my daughter in this house, and our neighborhood is everything.
It is amazing to have such a sense of history with where you live.
A lot of my parents friends still live here, they remember me when I was my daughters age and playing with friends in the backyard. It’s a flashback for them to see me now with my daughter.
I have a lot of history in this house. After my father passed away, it was just me and my mom living here for many years. She had Alzheimers and I stayed to take care of her. She worked for the Board of Education for 28 years. It was a really tough time, and quite a defining time for me. Seeing your parent be overcome by that disease is awful. At night she would fight, scream, bite me ... try to get away. There are so many terrible diseases, but to walk into a room and for your own mother not to regnozie you is heartbreaking.
I’ll always be grateful to my job for allowing me the time to be with my mom. I could take the extended leave when I needed it. I had 6 months paid leave to be with her full time before she passed. Everyone from my team at work came to my mom's funeral. They were all in uniform. It’s truly an amazing community.
Living in this house now also feels more special. It gives my daughter a connection to my mom.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Despite the round about way I got into my line of work I would say, have a plan. I do plan a lot now. And of course, things change, life won’t always go your way and your plan won’t work out. But at least you’ll have a starting point, and a course of action to get you going.
Planning goes a long way. I really like that saying; Measure twice and cut ones.
What does New York mean to you?
It's home. It can be a tough city, but New Yorkers stick together.