Crossing guards in the crosshairs

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Monday, February 27, 2012
— Janesville City Council members in November showed their support for the school crossing guard program but questioned why the school district doesn't help pay for it.

Two council members in November requested that staff approach the school district to get some financial help.

"I think it's a discussion that needs to happen," Kathy Voskuil said at the November council meeting.

"Good luck with that," said council member Yuri Rashkin, likely referring to the district's well-publicized financial problems.

The council had been considering cutting four crossing guards for a savings of $10,000. The city's transportation committee recommended the cuts.

Intersections occasionally are studied because neighborhoods change and streets are reconfigured, improving safety. The crossings are evaluated by the Janesville city engineering department, which considers factors including traffic speed and the age and number of children who use the intersection.

Several residents at the meeting spoke in favor of keeping a crossing guard at the intersection of Wright and Randolph roads.

The council eventually cut only two of the city's 19 guards beginning next fall, citing their support for the program and concern about safety.

The $70,000 budgeted to run the program this year comes from the police budget. The 19 intersections include two along Rotamer Road in the Milton School District that are funded differently: the Milton School District pays for 1.5 of the positions, and the city of Janesville pays for a half position.

The crossing guards have been city-paid and a police department responsibility for years, said Sgt. Brian Donohoue, who supervises the program. He hires the guards, and the department trains and supervises them. Alternates fill in when necessary, and if alternates are not available, police officers step in.

It's not easy finding a good crossing guard, and the turnover rate is high, Donohoue said. The pay is $9 a session, or $18 a day, and the guards are out in all sorts of weather. Still, some have been with the city for 15 or 20 years, he said.

"It takes the right person," Donohoue said. "It has to be someone who truly likes kids, and they have to be responsible. They're out there in the snow and the cold and the rain—all the elements.

"The No. 1 quality is being reliable," he said.

The job has no benefits, and about the only perk Donohoue can offer is a location nearer crossing guards' homes if a position comes open.

When given the chance, some crossing guards decline to move because they grow to love their crossings, the kids and the families, Donohoue said.

It's not uncommon for children to give crossing guards cards at Christmas, he said, and for guards to provide caps or scarves to little ones missing winter gear.

The biggest complaint he gets from crossing guards is the actions of parents who unsafely drop off their children at schools, Donohoue said.

"The verbal abuse is terrible, which is ironic," he said. "The crossing guards are there for their kids, and the parents cause the most discomfort for the crossing guards."

He urged parents and other residents to slow at marked crossings for the safety of the children and the crossing guards.

He's lost count of the close calls caused by distracted or inattentive drivers, he said.

"We've been very, very fortunate," Donohoue said.

No student has been struck in a crossing in the eight years he's been supervising. One crossing guard sustained a minor injury.

Residents who spoke in November about the need for crossing guards at Randolph and Wright roads agreed that many of the problems are caused by the drivers.

One parent described the "highly erratic" traffic and "excessive speed" of vehicles.

"It would be a high, high risk for our children to cross that road," said Diane Eyers, 2230 La Mancha Drive.

"Is eliminating a guard worth seeing one child get hurt?" asked Allison DeGraaf, 4417 Tanglewood Drive. "Can you really put a price on that?"

Council member Voskuil agreed with the speakers.

"We all need to take a look at how we drive and slow down," she said. "These are elementary school kids (who) are not paying attention."

She recommended the city ask the school district to help pay for the program.

Councilman Russ Steeber agreed.

"The crossing guards are there for their (the district's) children," he said. "We need to take and have that discussion to move that responsibility more to the school district."

Careless drivers are guard's worst enemy

Patricia Fleming has safeguarded children at one of the city's busiest intersections for five years.

She's seen it all and in all kinds of weather.

Fleming, 73, Janesville, begged for the job to supplement her Social Security. She vows to keep it until her knees give out.

She likes most things about her post at Memorial Drive and Milton Avenue.

She likes the children, who travel to and from Adams Elementary School or St. Matthew's Evangelical Lutheran School.

The crosswalk is near her home, and even though the weather can be a challenge, she believes working in the cold has improved her health—she

hasn't had a cold lately.

The down side: impatient and careless drivers who are irritating and dangerous.

At 3 pm. on most days, the intersection is a web of vehicles stopping, going and turning. She's responsible for dozens of children and said the job is not for the faint of heart.

Fleming has been almost hit twice. She wasn't able to get license plates because she was too busy dodging the vehicles.

Too many drivers are inconsiderate, rude and unsafe, she said.

"They are in such a hurry."

Many are talking on cell phones and not paying attention.

"They think the yellow means speed up, and they don't pay attention to the signs, especially the sign that says, 'No right turns on red when children are present,'" she said.

Fleming teaches the kids to look before they step into the street even if they have the right of way. When the kids remind her of that they have the right of way, she tells them: "Yes, but it will not help you if you are in the hospital."

Every once in a while, a child will oversleep, and she knows it is the child hurrying to school who will not pay attention.

Not all the children hurry, she said with a smile. She told of the boy who must crack the thin sheet of ice over every puddle. She laughed when she recalled the two little girls who walked a block on their knees in a fresh dusting of snow, despite her warnings they were late.

"They were just having fun," she said. "They weren't concerned."

One Adams Elementary student told her he wants to be either a crossing guard or an oceanographer when he grows up. She told him to concentrate on the oceanography, considering the pay.

Crossing guards don't get paid too badly at about $18 an hour, she said. In fact, she's never made that much money an hour in her life.

"The problem is, I only work one hour a day," she said.

There are few weeks a year when her bi-weekly paycheck registers 10 days because of school days off. There is no summer work and no benefits. Fleming will retire in May from her business, Balloon-A-Grams by Fancy Flights.

Some might think the job is easy, Fleming said, but the half hours bookend her mornings and afternoons and anchor her close to home for the day.

And half-hour sessions seem longer in the wind, snow or rain.

"The first year I worked, I thought I had joined the Royal Canadian Mounties," she said.

One day it rained, then snowed, then sleeted and then turned dark as dusk.

Windy rain is probably the worst.

"It blows your umbrella inside out," she said.

Fleming has perfected her clothing layers: two pairs of sweat pants, knee warmers, three sweatshirts with a T-shirt on top, a scarf, mittens and black stocking hat.

When the temps dip below zero, she pulls out her furry "Russian coat" that reaches to the sidewalk.

All is topped with neon-green safety vest.

"I'll say to the kids, 'It's kind of nippy out,'" Fleming said. "There's not a kid who knows what 'nippy' is today."

Fleming appreciates the little things. The last two years, children have made her posters during National Crossing Guard Week in bone-chilling January. One man pulled over and handed her a cup of coffee.

"A lot of kids thank me every time I cross them," she said.

Parents, too, tell her how much they appreciate what she does.

She believes she has saved lives.

"I surely do," she said. "That day I was almost hit, it could have been a kid."

Fleming is especially proud of her stop sign, which she is quick to demonstrate. It was donated to the crossing guards by the K-Kids of Lincoln Elementary School in 2008. Red lights flash around the perimeter of the octagon when it is held aloft, making it especially useful in the fog.

Sometimes, Fleming will let Carl, the little guy who wants to be a crossing guard, hold it aloft while she walks him across the street.

Last updated: 7:38 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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