Crossing guards play special roles in public safety

Jane Mitchell guides traffic as students make their way home from Fifth Street School.
Staff Writer

They go largely unnoticed and under-appreciated. But this week’s string of tragic accidents involving children and adults waiting at school bus stops, including one in Marietta in North Mississippi, has put new attention on some of the unsung heroes of public safety — school crossing guards.

“I think sometimes people don’t pay attention to us. They don’t think about it. It’ll be raining and they’ll just race on by,” noted Willie Caldwell, a veteran crossing guard who this year is stationed at the intersection of East Morrow and Fifth Street on the edge of the busy Fifth Street School campus.

“Some just zoom right through sometimes, like they are going 60 miles per hour. It really scares me when they come down the street and go around a school bus that’s parked are turning, they look like they didn’t do anything wrong,” echoed Jannie Mitchell, who works the corner a block down the street from Caldwell at East Morrow and Sixth.

Caldwell and Mitchell are two of the three crossing guards posted at Fifth Street. The school district, working with the police department, has a total of 13 crossing guards — three each at Fifth Street, East Side Elementary and the high school’s North Campus, and two each at Church Hill Elementary and the high school’s South Campus.

Even before the school bus stop accidents drew national attention this week, West Point Schools Superintendent Burnell McDonald understood the value of the guards.

“They sure are, they mean so much to our kids’ safety,” he said when a visitor suggested the guards were the district’s “unsung heroes.”
“Oh, no, no, no. I couldn’t even imagine how many wrecks we’d have, how many people we’d have run over, how many buses. Don’t even think about not having them,” stated school resource officer Tara Sloan, who is in her third year overseeing the crossing guard program.

“We’d all be a nervous wreck without them, couldn’t do it,” Sloan continued, noting their maturity is an important part of doing a good job.

They all get to know the kids and many of the drivers. That familiarity helps maintain some semblance of control. In a way they develop their own fan base.

“Mr. Caldwell gets out there early and exercises or plays an imaginary piano. People love to watch him,” Sloan said of Caldwell, who also is a member of a touring gospel music group. “He is really dedicated, that all are.”

Because of the age of the students — fifth through seventh grades — Fifth Street may be the busiest campus. Many students walk to and from school and they come and go from every direction.

In addition, because the school sits in the middle of a block surrounded on four sides by streets, parents have devised ways to park on almost every street and get their children to meet them there for a ride.

That’s in addition to a line of school buses that fill the south entrance and regular car pick up on the east side.
“It gets busy, they go every which way,” Mitchell noted as a steady stream of students came by as she stopped or waved traffic through.

“There’s a lot that goes into keeping the children safe. We take a lot of pride in that. A lot of people don’t think about it, take us for granted,” Caldwell said, holding up a large stop sign to block some cars while waving others along.

“It’s a job keeping them safe, a good job, I like what we do,” added Mitchell, who has had the position for two years.

While Fifth Street is busy, the up side is the streets are narrow and in a neighborhood. Residents of the area know the routine and cooperate with the cross guards and school traffic.

Church Hill and the high school both sit on streets that mix school traffic with cars and trucks cutting through to other destinations. That creates more problems at both locations. Speed and frustration become even more of a factor.

It’s one of the reasons West Point and the school district started limiting early arrivals on Church Hill at the elementary school and on busy Broad Street at East Side to cut down on through traffic bobbing and weaving through school pick ups.

While the guards get their share of nasty looks and a few profane bits of advice sometimes, they also get special moments.

“A lady stopped Wednesday and gave us all a bag of candy on Halloween. She said she really appreciated what we do. It was so sweet,” Mitchell said as she waved a car through on Sixth Street.

And the hour or so on the job weekday mornings and a little longer on weekday afternoons is an opportunity for perspective, especially in a sometimes turbulent world.

“You see that, I just love it when I see little white children and little black children like that walking, laughing and playing together,” the 62-year-old Caldwell said, nodding his head toward a group of students heading away from school. “It just touches my heart.”