Crossing Guards See Danger at Every Turn

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When Judith Reese became a Santa Ana crossing guard 23 years ago, she could hoist her stop sign paddle in the air and feel confident that drivers would obey as she walked a group of children across the street.

Not anymore.

Reese and other school crossing guards said their job is becoming increasingly difficult--and dangerous. During the last six months, two Santa Ana guards were seriously injured by cars. Four other crossing guards in Orange County have been hit in the last two years, and Los Angeles officials report about two such accidents a year.

In an effort to reduce accidents, Los Angeles officials recently began placing orange cones at school crossings and requiring guards to wear orange baseball caps. They have also painted warnings on the roadway to alert drivers to upcoming crosswalks. The city is also enlisting parents and community volunteers to supplement the ranks of paid guards.

"It seems that these precautions are working, but it's still a very risky proposition to cross at some of the major intersections," said Jim Sherman, parking administrator for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. "The volumes of traffic are going up and it's going to continue to go up. As a result, there's more frustration out there."

Concerns over safety have prompted several states to reexamine how best to get schoolchildren across busy streets.

"In the beginning, cars would stop. Now you have to make them stop," said Reese, who helps 200 students a day cross at her intersection on Flower Street. "I am always watching all the directions. . . . Everyone is in a hurry."

Experts say their frustration reflects a shift over the last two decades in the situation facing crossing guards. As traffic volume increases, motorists become more aggressive, and more children walk to school rather than take buses.

"They're more like traffic cops than crossing guards," said Sheila Sarkar, the director of the California Institute of Transportation Safety, which is studying accidents at one Santa Ana elementary school. "There's a lot of confusion out there."

Duties Expanding Across the Nation

Throughout the nation, crossing guards are being tapped to take on duties far beyond their original mission, from monitoring the behavior of children to writing down the license plate numbers of reckless drivers.

In some parts of Santa Ana, crossing guards have undergone training in spotting and reporting crimes, including keeping a diary of suspicious activity. In other states, such as Texas, crossing guards are taught to look out for signs of child abuse or neglect.

But these added duties concern some experts, who say even the best-trained crossing guards should stick to their basic traffic duties.

"One thing we stress is that crossing guards are not police officers; their main role should be to find gaps in traffic so they can cross kids," said Bill Cloyd, program manager for a Texas A&M; University program that trains crossing guards.

Local guards say they contend with hazards in all directions--from drivers who refuse to yield to pedestrians who dash into the street without looking.

Maria Sevilla has seen it all on her beat, the corner of Main and Walnut streets in Santa Ana. Reckless drivers. Careless drivers. Mindless drivers. Fearless pedestrians.

On a recent afternoon, she was entering the street with a group of kids when a speeding sport utility vehicle drove into the crosswalk inches in front of them before coming to a sudden halt.

"People see [my] sign," Sevilla said, shaking her head. "But they don't slow down. They don't care about pedestrians. . . . It's scary."

While some drivers are ruthless, she said, many others put the lives of pedestrians in jeopardy simply because they aren't paying attention.

The five-block area around her intersection has seen six pedestrian accidents in the last three years, according to city records. Sevilla hasn't witnessed any accidents during her six years on Main Street, but the recent accidents involving colleagues left her and others shaken.

In March, a crossing guard was hit by a car on Broadway, suffering two broken legs. In December, a crossing guard was hurt in another accident, this time on Chestnut Avenue. In both cases, police cited the drivers.

In another accident within the last two years, a 63-year-old Fullerton crossing guard was hit after he pushed a young girl out of the path of a car.

It is unclear whether there has been an increase in the number of crossing guards hurt on the job, because neither local nor federal government agencies keep such statistics.

Guards' Level of Training Varies

But pedestrian accidents have been a focus of intense interest in Santa Ana, which according to a UC Irvine study has the highest pedestrian death rate in Southern California. Six pedestrians were killed last year, and five have been killed so far this year. A Santa Ana Unified School District study found that more than half of the 72 pedestrians hit in the first six months of 1998 were children walking near school.

Most crossing guards receive basic safety training before hitting the streets. But because of their part-time status, they are often overlooked when it comes to long-term career development.

As the job becomes more difficult, however, that is slowly changing. Crossing guards in Texas last year formed the nation's first professional association for guards and hope to eventually take it national.

The organization is now focused on helping create uniform training and procedures for all cities in Texas so that motorists deal with the same rules regardless of where they drive. Right now, rules and regulations vary from city to city.

The group is also examining how various cities improve safety at dangerous intersections, such as by placing flares and flashing lights to slow traffic.

One question traffic engineers will eventually have to decide is exactly what the role of crossing guards should be. Some guards in Santa Ana take pride in doing more than simply ushering children across the street.

Coronel, for example, once caught a purse snatcher at her intersection, and says she likes to keep her pocket of Santa Ana safe.

"I could give my life for the kids," she said. "I don't think twice. Whoever comes over to my place, they have to feel safe on my time. I feel like I have to protect people."

Others, however, said they have their hands full just dealing with the flow of cars and pedestrians and don't have time for other responsibilities such as writing down the license plate numbers of bad drivers.

"Sometimes your mind is racing 100 miles per hour, just to keep up with all that's going on," Reese said. "There's a lot going on out there. You get some scares out there. You have to make sure the cars are stopped, everyone's on the curb. You have to make sure they stay put. And you have to watch the traffic. It's everything at once."

One thing is clear: The job isn't what it used to be. While crossing guards still get their share of smiling, bright-eyed children preparing for their day at school, they also see an increasingly ugly side.

Last week, Coronel was about to walk a mother and child across Lacy Street when a car pulled into the crosswalk. Waving her stop sign paddle, Coronel asked the driver to back out of the crosswalk. But the motorist refused and began shouting obscenities at the crossing guard. After a two-minute standoff, the driver finally pulled back, and Coronel took her group across the street.

"I think when you have the stop sign you have some kind of power, but not a whole lot," she said.

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