Students strap on responsibility

Published September 3, 2006

TAMPA - Fifth-graders Katie Chillura and Stuart Messerman are wearing the elementary school accessory: a plastic belt in electric lime, with two metallic badges.

"I'm making more friends this year," Katie said.

"Some people have always been more in charge of me," Stuart said. "Now I'm in charge of them."

Meet the Safety Patrols of the Month at Westchase Elementary School. Or even better, read the lettering on the first of their badges.

That's right, they answer to captain.

Physical education teacher Debbie Monce picked Katie and Stuart to be the patrol leaders for the first nine weeks. Next quarter, the students will vote to elect captains.

Monce oversees about 45 safety patrols. They had to apply for a job whose requirements include arriving at school early and leaving late.

The kids don't know that everyone gets in.

"It's a status thing. Kids look up to them," Monce said. "In first grade they start asking, 'When can I be a patrol?' "

Not much has changed since the Automobile Association of America started the safety patrol program more than 85 years ago, though it was big news a few years ago when AAA retired its longtime orange belts for today's florescent green.

The appeal remains unchanged for Sade Agostino, one of about 6,000 patrols in Hillsborough schools. She has wanted to join since third grade.

"It's cool because you get a belt," said Sade, who maintains order over at the Westchase bicycle rack in the morning. "And it's a lot of special privileges."

Patrols can stand up on buses. They can get to classes late in the morning. They can talk in the halls.

The thrill is one of the few things about school that has remained a constant across generations.

"My whole family was patrols - my mom, dad and sister," said Stuart, a co-captain at Westchase Elementary. "I'm following in my family's footsteps."

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 813 226-2400.