In between kids, cars

Published April 27, 2007

There was a guard at Mort Elementary School, not just any guard but a supervisor. The crosswalk was marked. But the best safeguards could not protect 9-year-old Maryam El-Noursi as she crossed Bearss Avenue early on March 8.

Deputies say a driver ran a red light and struck her. Had it not been for a quick reaction by guard Ralph Joyner, it could have been worse: About a dozen children were in that crosswalk.

After a few cuts and bruises Maryam is back at school, said grandmother Hilda Ferrer.

Edger Hilton, who told police he had taken painkillers the night before, pleaded not guilty to driving under the influence. "He was on drugs and he ran that light," Ferrer said. "The crossing guard was doing his job."

Throughout Hillsborough County, crossing guards are doing their job despite thin staffing, crowded schools and bad drivers. At least five students have been hit while walking to or from school this school year, including crashes that killed two Brandon teens.

Joyner sees drivers drink coffee, talk on phones and read the paper, all while driving the street his "babies" must cross. It's especially dangerous at lower-income schools such as Mort, where many walk unsupervised.

But accidents can happen anywhere - particularly at high schools, which the Sheriff's Office does not patrol. Camden White and Lindsey Rutledge were killed while walking to high schools in the Brandon area.

At fault are a number of factors: a state that builds big schools on crowded roads, a school district that leaves pedestrian safety largely to the county and law enforcement, and the careless nature of young people and harried drivers.

Getting guards

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has only 223 - 20 positions short of the 243 they need, said Deputy Robin Saulnier, who runs the program.

All 20 crossing guard vacancies are at elementary schools and filled by crossing guard supervisors or deputies.

The positions have limited work hours and are hard to fill. Sheriff's officials rely on schools, churches and PTAs to help recruit workers.

The requirements are an eight-hour, state-mandated course and three training days.

The pay is $9.75 an hour for a total of two hours a day, split between early morning and afternoon.

"This is a job that's best for the retired," said Joyner, the 73-year-old guard at Mort. "When you think of this as a job that'll bring you enough money to buy a car or a house, you're wrong."

Because it's so hard to hire guards, and with traffic volume constantly rising, the Sheriff's Office finds itself shutting down crosswalks instead of adding them.

They've closed four in the last three years; N 22nd Street at E Busch Boulevard, N 15th Street at E Fowler Avenue and N Florida Avenue at E Martin Luther King Boulevard in Tampa, and S Kings Avenue at W Bloomingdale Avenue in Brandon.

Before that happens, the Sheriff's Office waits for the school district to provide bus transportation to those children who would have to walk.

Even schools that have crossing guards are not completely safe.

Their locations, sometimes on busy commuter roads, make them nearly impossible to patrol.

"Even with the sheriff's deputy out here, people just don't seem to pay too much attention," said Eugene Ham, who has two children at Mort, where 90 percent of the children walk.

"They try to stop them and they just fly on through," he said. "But thinking about it, you're going to have that anywhere, everywhere in Tampa."

Two new programs

The obvious solution would be to build smaller schools on quieter roads.

But Florida's tax structure makes that scenario unlikely. Modern elementary schools typically are built for 1,000 children, while high schools hold as many as 3,000.

To make the roads safer, the County Commission in recent years has funded two new programs: the School Safety, Circulation and Access Program, which is studying problem roads in conjunction with school officials; and the School Zone Safety Program, which analyzes and improves the county's school zones.

While state guidelines for school zones stop at the eighth grade level, the School Zone Safety Program includes all grade levels at public and private schools, designating school zones with lights, signs and street markings countywide.

So far, the county has processed nearly 100 schools, said Gary Tait, who manages the county's bicycle, pedestrian and school safety program.

Brandon High School was one of 11 high schools put on the program list for evaluation a year and a half ago.

Flashing lights finally greeted students when they returned from spring break, nearly four months after freshman Camden Allen White was hit and killed on his way to the school.

While the posted speed limit in front of the school was 35 mph then, it was not a designated school zone. After Camden's death, his family pushed for stricter traffic safety controls at all schools. They argued that a crosswalk wasn't enough; the street in front of Brandon High should have been a school zone.

Now, it is.

Trouble spots

None of the county's high schools has crossing guards. The law does not require them, and the Sheriff's Office says it doesn't have the manpower.

"We've got 20 vacancies, all at elementary schools. We can't even keep those filled," Saulnier said. And "high school-aged kids almost always avoid the crossing guard."

Such was the case on Jan. 5 when Hillsborough High School sophomore Withdierma Martinez was hit near the intersection of Florida and Osborne avenues.

A crossing guard assigned to neighboring Broward Elementary had been posted there. Police say the 15-year-old darted into the street. The driver was driving no more than 20 mph, according to reports.

Withdierma survived.

The next month, on Feb. 27, Lindsey Rutledge was hit and killed on her way to Bloomingdale High School.

The 16-year-old had stepped into the path of a car driven by a 16-year-old driver a few miles away from her destination.

On March 27, Davis Elementary School student Devin Blake was hit by an SUV while walking from school near the intersection of Memorial Highway at Timberlane W Drive. Devin darted in front of the vehicle, according to the Sheriff's Office. While some of these crashes happened along school routes, both Camden and Maryam were hit while using crosswalks directly in front of their schools.

"Just putting a crossing guard at a location doesn't make it automatically safe," said Saulnier. "They don't tell cars to slow down. They just create safe gaps in traffic for kids to cross safely."

Being on busy streets or on growing minor roads means extra duty all around for not only the crossing guards but also staff and parents.

The staffs at Cannella, Clark and Carrollwood elementaries have adopted the extra duty of directing traffic.

At Gorrie Elementary - which has three crossing guards - on De Leon Street near South Boulevard in South Tampa, staff members are no strangers to erratic drivers, said assistant principal Wendy Harrison.

"Sometimes they turn around in the middle of De Leon. We get their license numbers and report them," she said.

It's the same story at Mort.

"They drive crazy," said Joyner.

The School Board commended Joyner for protecting the other children who were crossing with Maryam the day she was struck.

Today, Joyner is even warier. Drivers are still the same, with their coffee cups and phones and newspapers.

"They look angry," he said. "Probably because I'm holding them up."

Staff writer Saundra Amrhein contributed to this report. Amber Mobley can be reached at amobley@sptimes.com or 813 269-5311.

Fast Facts:


Students hit by cars

Dec. 4, 2006: Camden White, Brandon High School

Jan. 5, 2007: Withdierma Martinez, Hillsborough High School

Feb. 27, 2007: Lindsey Rutledge, Bloomingdale High

March 8, 2007: Maryam El-Noursi, Mort Elementary

March 27, 2007: Devin Blake, Davis Elementary

To become a crossing guard, call Deputy Robin Saulnier at (813) 247-0927.