The hallways and doors at Samuel Staples Elementary will be locked during the upcoming town-wide referendum and municipal election following a March 30 incident where an unauthorized individual took pictures in hallways and a classroom.
The incident prompted town and school officials to strictly enforce the use of school restrooms to authorized poll workers and elections officials only. The referendum on Sept. 21 and the municipal election on Nov. 2 will be held at the school. A police officer may be assigned to the polls throughout the voting hours.
Restrooms at the school are available to poll workers and election officials who must remain on site from before the polls open at 6, until after the polls close at 8 p.m. and the results are tabulated. The school restrooms are not available to the public.
During the March 30 referendum, a volunteer in the Republican booth outside the polls was given the privilege to use the restroom, even though he wasn’t a poll worker or election official. The individual, Dana Benson, walked beyond the restroom to take photos of bulletin boards in the hallways and in at least one classroom. Documents concerning the incident were obtained by the Courier through the Freedom of Information Act.
Benson, co-chairman of an LLC called Save our Schools, Save our Town, attached the photos to a message he circulated about the LLC. He described them as “photos from Samuel Staples School in Easton … the school is full of diversity posters.”
When School Principal Kim Fox Santora learned of the breach, she informed Benson in an email that his actions were unacceptable and must never be repeated. “This is a security breach that I will address with officials at Easton Town Hall and my custodians,” she wrote.
Benson responded to Fox Santora, stating that “The School was closed, I stayed masked and on my way out I took a couple of photos which I shared with you. The school is festooned with posters telling a positive DEI story.”
But Fox Santora questioned Benson’s explanation by using the very pictures he shared. “The pictures of the children are inside a classroom in the first grade neighborhood,” she wrote. “I found the classroom, and you obviously travelled all the way inside the room as they are posted on the wall above the computer counter. As such, you did not take these pictures on your way out as you stated.”
When the Easton Courier asked Benson about the incident, he stated, “My response to the email I received from you regarding the March 2021 elections at Samuel Staples School is the same response I emailed to Kimberly Fox in response to the May 2021 letter she sent to me: ‘I apologize. I did not intend any harm. It did not occur to me that what I was doing was wrong. Thank you for your letter pointing out your level of concern. I will refrain from doing that again.’ This response was sent to: Jenny Chieda, Rydell Harrison, Jon Stinson, Clarence Zachery, Mr. Brownstein and Kimberly Fox.”
Town and school officials agree that the safety of Easton’s children is paramount and they are working together to ensure it. Police Chief Richard Doyle said he was in contact with officials about security at the polls in light of the incident. “Having an officer there at all times is one of our considerations,” he said. “Volunteers need to be told that under no circumstances can they enter the building and use the rest rooms.”
First Selectman David Bindelglass emphasized, “When we hold elections, we are guests of the Board of Education. As guests, we make sure we follow the rules and are good guests. This shouldn’t have happened. It won’t happen again. Voters don’t have access to the restrooms.”
David Smith, Democratic registrar of voters, said, “I was totally surprised by all that I have heard. I’m definitely sure that we won’t allow anything like this to occur again, and I’m sure I speak for both sides. We will work with the school, the police and custodians to assure the privacy and personal safety of everyone, and get the job done.”
Dori Wollen, Republican registrar of voters, agreed that they will take steps to assure nothing like this happens again. “My take is it should never have happened. We will remind the poll workers to be extra vigilant and put up signs and enforce the rules. It’s terribly sad this happened in this day and age.”
Dr. Rydell Harrison was superintendent at the time the incident occurred. He has since resigned and former superintendent Dr. Thomas McMorran was appointed as the interim superintendent pending the arrival of Dr. Jason McKinnon, who was recently hired.
McMorran has many years of experience in the ER9 schools, as superintendent, assistant superintendent and Joel Barlow High School head of schools. “It’s important to establish that the schools belong to the public, but that doesn’t mean they are public spaces,” McMorran said. “I take this incredibly seriously.”
Jon Stinson, Easton Board of Education chairman, said there is significant concern about anyone wandering around the building. “In the future the custodians will lock all the doors to the hallways to make it impossible for them to get down one of the hallways and into a classroom. I plan to ask the town what security the town will pay for. It’s not an expense for the schools.”
Stinson said it’s regrettable, especially in the context of everything else the building leaders have been juggling in the last 18 months during the pandemic. “We’ve started coming together as a community,” he said. “I think we’re past it and learned from it and will be ever more vigilant.”