Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Crossing guards: They’re tough and back on the job

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When Kyvele Joe stopped traffic to help an elementary school student cross the road a few years ago, a cranky driver rolled down his window and bellowed at her, ‘‘Get a life!”

As a public school crossing guard since 1986, Joe has grown a thick skin for angry drivers. Hugs and smiles from the children she walks to school each morning make up for the road-rage encounters, she said.

Joe, of North Potomac, is one of the 178 crossing guards employed by the county police to ferry elementary and middle school students across county streets each school day.

From their posts at busy intersections, they deliver one message for hours each day: Stop and let the kids cross.

‘‘I wish they would realize when we stop them, it’s nothing personal,” said Helen Oelschlaeger, of Brookville. ‘‘Our chief concern is for their children.”

Oelschlaeger floats from school to school as a substitute crossing guard.

‘‘You don’t expect to fall in love with the kids as much as you do,” she said. ‘‘You are there to protect them, and you take care of them as you would your own.”

All but a handful of the county’s guards are women, many with children in school. The guards are 25 to 85 years old. Some, with up to 40 years on the job, have escorted generations of MCPS students across the street.

‘‘They have a tremendous amount of responsibility every day,” said Sgt. Jim Whalen, Montgomery County Police Department guard supervisor. ‘‘If this crossing guard isn’t here and a kid crosses the street and gets hit by a car, who are they going to [hold accountable]?”

Because they are entrusted with the county’s youngest pedestrians, crossing guards go through a rigorous screening process before becoming paid employees of the police department. Police check a prospective guard’s FBI record, credit history, fingerprints, driving records and even canvass the candidate’s neighborhood.

Guards must have a high school diploma, a vehicle and a valid driver’s license.

Novice guards get a few weeks of on-the-job training with an experienced guard, then are evaluated by a police officer for the green light to take their orange vests out solo.

The county spends about $21,000 — including full benefits — on each guard annually, or about $3.7 million for the whole staff. The starting wage is $13.51 per hour for 2.5 hours a day. Crossing-guard jobs are ‘‘the best-kept secret in Montgomery County,” Joe said. ‘‘It’s great for moms.”

Since many guards are mothers of MCPS students, the department assigns guards as close to their homes as possible, apportioned by police district. The Germantown district has the most guards, with 40. Five substitute guards float among schools throughout the county.

Police and MCPS divvy up guards by weighing a school’s characteristics: Will students be crossing a busy highway with a high speed limit or a slow-moving two-lane road? Do stop signs or stoplights already control traffic at the intersection?

Elementary schools get first priority, then middle schools, which have only 15 guards. High schools don’t have crossing guards because teenagers ignore them, Whalen said.

‘‘If you’re in high school, you ought to be able to cross the street by yourself,” he said.

Police get a dozen calls in the average year requesting more crossing guards near a school, Whalen said.

Lisa Brown of Gaithersburg, a crossing guard for more than 15 years, said she thinks schools could benefit from hiring more crossing guards.

Based on her experience manning traffic posts in Bethesda, Germantown and Gaithersburg, Brown said drivers have become more frenetic.

‘‘I think the traffic has gotten busier, and cars drive faster,” she said. ‘‘We’ve noticed a lack of people paying as much attention, and people on their cell phones.”

Drivers run stop signs, honk, yell and speed through intersections, guards said.

Brown and her colleagues said grouchy drivers do not overshadow the advantages of the job: short work hours, an outdoor setting, government employee benefits, the chance to work with dedicated student patrols — and enduring relationships with children and their parents.

Children never forget their school’s assigned crossing guard, they said.

‘‘When I’m out in the neighborhood, I’ll be walking around, and someone will pat me on the back and say, ‘Hey, Mrs. Brown,’” she said. ‘‘And it’ll be a man with a beard.”