The light had just turned red on a recent morning, and Deputy Bill Sarver walked into the crosswalk, ahead of students bound for Oak Grove Elementary. The driver of an SUV came speeding up to the Armenia Avenue crossing and slammed on the brakes, stopping mere feet from the deputy. Next time might not be so lucky, deputies say. The crosswalk has become "too hazardous" for kids, said Sgt. Larry McKinnon, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which runs the county's crossing guard program. So authorities are doing something that worries many parents: They're removing the crossing guard at the busy midblock crosswalk.
They hope the change will encourage kids and their parents to use bus services that the school district recently added, largely to accommodate the roughly 50 students who use the crossing to get to and from Oak Grove, at 6315 N Armenia Ave.
Students have just two more weeks with a crossing guard. Oct. 28 will be the guard's last day at the location in front of Oak Grove, authorities said this week.
The buses, which began running Sept. 26, pick up students at N Habana Avenue and Burke Street, N Habana and Ralston Beach Circle, and Armenia at the northwest corner of Jean Street.
School officials say costs for the stops are minimal, about $3,760 annually for drivers and the roughly 4 miles extra per day they will have to travel.
The Sheriff's Office said bus routes have been added in similar situations.
About 2,000 vehicles pass through the Oak Grove crosswalk as students are going to class between 7:10 and 8:25 a.m. Another 1,200 pass as they leave for the day, roughly between 2 and 2:45 p.m.
Armenia is not marked as a school zone in front of Oak Grove, so the posted speed limit is 40 miles per hour on that stretch.
Still, parents don't like the busing alternative one bit. They want their crossing guard.
"None of the parents want this," Gia Medina said while walking with her 7-year-old daughter on a recent school day.
She thinks kids will continue to walk to school and cross by themselves, maybe running in front of traffic.
The Sheriff's Office said removing the crossing guard is a safety decision.
"I know we've had numerous instances when the guard has nearly been struck," said Deputy Michael Hudson, the crossing guard coordinator. "The speed, the number of vehicles and the instances where we've had people nearly struck tell me it's not a safe place for students to cross."
The crosswalk in front of Oak Grove had drawn safety concerns for at least five years, said school PTA president Bridgitte Kramer. Parents have petitioned to get the speed limit reduced around the midblock crossing.
Jonathan Small, who walked his two boys to school last week, said it would be safer with a crossing guard present than without one.
"You take away the crossing guard and it's a recipe for disaster," he said.
Medina, Small and other parents said they'll continue to walk their children to school instead of dropping them off at the new bus stops.
Small said it doesn't make sense for him to use the bus. His sons' designated stop is farther away from his house than the school itself.
Medina said that one day when she tried using the bus it was late, picking her daughter up at 7:58 a.m. — two minutes before classes start.
Kramer, the PTA leader, is worried, too. Despite the new bus routes, numerous students are still crossing Armenia at the crosswalk, she said.
"What happens to that one child that overslept and comes running to school and thinks they are going to cross that big road by themselves?" she asked.
In the past three to five years, Hudson said, deputies have removed about 15 crossing guards, one of them stationed at a dangerous midblock crossing in front of Ruskin Elementary. The crossing guards are usually moved to other locations. Hudson said more midblock crossings could close.
Stricter enforcement this year of a rule that allows busing only for students more than 2 miles away has made for more traffic and congestion around schools, he said. (That rule was relaxed for the new Oak Grove bus routes because of safety concerns.)
In times past, Hudson said, "There wasn't the traffic volume" there is now.
Danny Valentine can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or [email protected]