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Wanted: school crossing guards

Short three guards, Inverness has police officers do the job - unless an emergency elsewhere forces them to leave.

By CARRIE JOHNSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 15, 2001


Short three guards, Inverness has police officers do the job -- unless an emergency elsewhere forces them to leave.

INVERNESS -- Officer Albert Corradina stands in the middle of County Road 581, neon orange gloves on his hands and a silver whistle perched between his lips, trying to regulate the crush of traffic pouring into Pleasant Grove Elementary School.

It's nearly 8 a.m. and cars are backed up 10 deep as Corradina motions a bus out of the parking lot.

"It seems like more and more people are driving their kids to school these days," said Corradina, a community services officer with the Inverness Police Department. "I don't know why that is."

Corradina has repeated this routine many mornings over the past two months, although it's not what he was hired to do. Like nearly every officer on the Inverness force, Corradina has to help make up for a dwindling number of crossing guards at Inverness schools.

Inverness Police Chief Joseph Elizarde said his department currently has three crossing guards, half of what it needs to fill the posts it is contracted to cover by the Citrus County School Board.

The department has tried to close the gap by using sworn and community services officers. But if there's an emergency -- a car wreck, a bank robbery, a shooting -- it commands a higher priority and the officers must leave their school posts.

There have been many mornings this spring when Pleasant Grove has gone without a crossing guard, said Principal Patrick Simon.

And it has been a nightmare.

"Thank God nobody has been hurt, but it truly is an unsafe situation," he said.

More than 200 parents pick up their children from Pleasant Grove every day, Simon estimated. There are also 13 buses used to carry students to their homes.

When you have that many vehicles vying for space on a busy highway such as CR 581, it's likely to turn dangerous. Although they haven't had any wrecks, they've had a number of near misses, Simon said.

"My job is to provide safety to all students," Simon said, a task he said is impossible without a crossing guard.

Elizarde said he was left short-handed when three crossing guards abruptly quit within weeks of one another. The positions have been advertised and Elizarde said he has three applicants who are in the process of being screened for the job.

"We just can't have somebody walk in and put a uniform on them," he said.

To become an Inverness crossing guard, a part-time position, applicants must go through a background check, medical screening and two days of training, Elizarde said.

Still, he hopes to have the three at their posts before the school year is over.

In the interim, Elizarde said he was forced to rank the schools according to the likelihood of an accident. Pleasant Grove was given a lower priority because, unlike many of the other schools, no students have to cross a busy street, he said.

The School Board hires the Inverness and Crystal River police departments and the Citrus County Sheriff's Office to provide crossing guards, said Bonnie Hardiman, director of school services.

The departments are paid according to the number and rank of the officers standing guard each day. It costs the school district less for a crossing guard than for a sworn officer, Hardiman said.

For example, according to the contract between Inverness police and the school, the police charge $9 an hour for a crossing guard and $15 for an officer.

Crystal River charges a little more: $11.79 an hour for a guard, $25 for an officer, Hardiman said.

The contracts are renegotiated annually before the fiscal year ends June 30. Hardiman said she does not foresee any changes in the contracts this year.

Crystal River Cpl. Jim Seagreaves said the higher pay has helped retention and has allowed the department to be more selective.

"We have a much higher volume of applicants," he said.

Nonetheless, Seagreaves said he's strapped for crossing guards this year, too. He has 10, enough to fill all posts but with no alternates.

The department almost always loses crossing guards around this time, as the days grow longer, the weather turns warmer and the school year draws to a close.

"I don't know. Maybe it's burnout or maybe they make plans for the summer and don't want to stick around," Seagreaves said.

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