School crossing guards fill void as Hillsborough cuts back on bus service

Seven-year-old Anthony Gonzalez lives about a mile from Mort Elementary School, a cluster of winding side streets separating the Bearss Avenue campus from his home.

It is too far for him to walk by himself, but too close for the school system to assign a bus for pickup. So Anthony's mother or grandmother, Wanda Medero, makes the half-hour walk with him each morning and afternoon.

"Pedophiles. Kidnappers. Kids are not safe without you," Medero said.

Countywide, adults like Medero are preparing for the new school year, and many must figure out how their children will get to and from school.

Busing has become less of an option for some. Since 2007, the school system has been eliminating and consolidating hundreds of bus stops throughout Hillsborough, with the final phase of its transportation reorganization going into effect this year in parts of North Tampa, Temple Terrace and New Tampa.

In the plan's first two years, it saved more than $9 million, district officials say, adding that it could lead to healthier students as more of them walk or bike to school.

In the midst of the adjustments stand nearly 300 crossing guards who see their jobs as more important than ever.

In southeast Hillsborough, supervisor Jerry Zayas is assigned to a cluster of schools in Valrico. He tries to ensure that kids are safe, not only when they cross the street, but whenever they are in his care.

Sometimes, that means sticking around after a shift ends to ensure they aren't left alone.

"It's not a big deal, but there were a number of times where I stayed with them or gave the children my cell phone so they can find out if their parents are on their way," he said.

Ophelia Saffold, recently named the Florida Crossing Guard Supervisor of the Year, has staffed intersections from MacDill Air Force Base to Tampa's West Shore area for 31 years.

She is the kind of crossing guard who gets to know parents by name and promises a "special treat" for reluctant students if they promise to show up for school every day. Motorists slow down near Saffold's intersection, not just to obey lowered speed limits but to wave good morning.

It has never felt like work for Saffold, who will only say she's in her 70s, which is why she has no current plans to retire.

"I'd rather be somewhere I enjoy, doing what I love doing," she said.

Although crossing guards are at many intersections around elementary schools, they can't be everywhere. Accidents happen, sometimes even when a guard is nearby.

In March 2007, a 9-year-old Mort Elementary student was struck by a driver who ran a red light. She and a dozen others were being escorted by two guards at the Bearss Avenue crosswalk.

That same month, a Davis Elementary School student was hit by an SUV while walking from the Town 'N Country school. The boy darted in front of the vehicle in an area where no crossing guards were nearby.

Although kidnappings and other types of victimization are even rarer, they are much more likely to grab headlines and instill fear among parents.

This summer it was the death of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky that made national news. The New York City boy was walking home from camp by himself for the first time when he asked a stranger for directions. Leiby's dismembered body was found two days later. Police believe 35-year-old Levi Aron, the man he asked for help, killed him.

In 2009, it was the disappearance of Somer Thompson, who ran off from her siblings during a walk home from school in their Jacksonville suburb. The state is seeking the death penalty against Jarred Harrell, who is charged with murder, kidnapping, sexual battery and lewd or lascivious battery.

Harrell's stepfather owned a home along Somer's route.

Locally, it's hard to tell whether Hillsborough's decrease in bus stops has affected the number of kids who are walking. The district doesn't keep statistics on the various ways students get to and from school. But some crossing guards said they haven't noticed a significant boost in students on foot. They have, however, seen an increase in the number of parents driving their children to school in recent years.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which oversees the county's crossing guard program, constantly evaluates intersections near elementary schools to determine whether more guards are necessary. So far, the changes in bus stops has caused some shifting in where guards are stationed, but not an increase in the overall number.

About 300 students walk to Mort Elementary each morning during the school year, helped by six crossing guards along the way. Sometimes parents or older siblings serve as escorts, but many little ones walk alone.

Margaret Anyon and Cynthia Plummer tag team to get students safely across the busy four-lane street. They face traffic with whistles in their mouths and paddle stop signs in their hands.

Guards like Plummer make $10.38 an hour and work two hours a day whenever school is in session. Supervisors like Anyon work four hours a day and make $12.43 per hour.

Deputy Michael Hudson runs the crossing guard program. When he trains new employees, he tells them to imagine that the next president or business leader is among the students waiting to be helped across the road.

"We're looking for people that want to go out there and be around students and have a smile on their face," Hudson said. "What they're doing sometimes is very difficult."

Patrick Green nodded a "thank-you" in Plummer and Anyon's direction as he crossed Bearss with his son Dominic Simon after picking him up from Mort Elementary one afternoon.

Sometimes, Green lets 9-year-old Dominic walk alone, at least halfway. They make the walk together until they get to one of the crossing guards. Even then, Green watches Dominic the rest of the way.

"You can't trust kids to cross the street by themselves," he said.

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

. FAST FACTS

Want to become

a crossing guard?

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is taking applications for crossing guards. For more information, call (813) 247-0927 or visit www.hcso.tampa.fl.us and click on "Careers."

. Fast facts

Safety tips

The Florida Department of Education has crafted the "Are We There Yet?" brochure outlining safety tips for all modes of transportation to and from school.

To download the brochure, visit

faptflorida.org, click on "Manuals & Publications" and click the first link.

School crossing guards fill void as Hillsborough cuts back on bus service 07/28/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 28, 2011 5:31am]

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