A shortage of school crossing guards is forcing Baltimore County police officers to fill the gaps.
The county is authorized to have 273 part-time guards and there are 203 on board, said Officer Jen Peach, a police spokeswoman.
The shortage does not place students in danger, but burdens the police department when crimes or auto crashes occur because officers assigned to monitor crosswalks are unable to respond, she said.
The guard program "keeps our police officers in patrol, and doing the job that they get paid to do," Chief Terry Sheridan said at a recent community meeting. "We would much rather have a crossing guard who does that for a living than putting a patrol officer there."
Crossing guards, who don't have police powers, are assigned at 110 public and private elementary and middle schools in the county.
Eleven of the schools have vacancies, but no school is without at least one guard, Peach said. Some schools have multiple vacancies and "numerous" have a single guard, Peach said.
Peach said officers cover an average of 19 crossing guard shifts in the morning and 21 in the afternoon.
Towson and North Point areas have the greatest number of vacancies, Peach said. There are no vacancies in the Wilkens precinct, which covers the southwest portion of the county, she said.
Principals contact the school system's transportation department if there is a need for a crossing guard, triggering a study of the number of students walking to school, Peach said. The number of walkers, traffic conditions and speed limits are taken into consideration when determining if a guard is needed, Peach said.
Police officers are not scheduled to crossing guard shifts in advance, Peach said. When the time comes for a crossing guard to be at the school, police dispatchers check for available officers, she said. Traffic officers usually volunteer first so patrol officers remain available for other calls, she said.
School resource police officers do not perform crossing guard duties because they are needed inside buildings, Peach said.
Crossing guards are paid $12.78 per hour, receive benefits, and are expected to work 10 hours per week during the school year, according to an online job listing for the position, where the county is recruiting. They must be at least 18 years old, have transportation and be able to read, write and speak English.
No previous guard experience is required for Baltimore County crossing guards, the job listing states. Applications are reviewed by the police department's traffic management section.
Christine Delise, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said crossing guards play an important role at schools.
"Sometimes children can't always ascertain how fast a car is coming," she said. "When the natural flow of traffic doesn't allow for enough time for children to cross, that's when it helps to have a guard temporarily stop traffic."
Stacie Lauer and her 8-year-old daughter, Eleanor, a second-grader at Catonsville's Westowne Elementary School, walk home together from school each day.
During the 15-minute walk, they cross Harlem Lane, a 25-mph road, at a crosswalk in front of the school's entrance.
They do so with the assistance of Miss Bev, a crossing guard employed by Baltimore County who has worked at the crosswalk as long as Eleanor has been a student at the school.
"I don't know what we'd do without our crossing guard," Lauer said. "There's a lot of walking traffic at our school and she gets us to school safely."
Tracey Bowden, the mother of two students at Catonsville Elementary School, said while a crossing guard is at Frederick Road and Bloomsbury Avenue, a guard is needed at the intersection of Bloomsbury Avenue and Bloomingdale Avenue, two blocks from the school.
Bowden said cars drive too quickly and about 12 to 15 students within a four block area cross Bloomsbury Avenue there daily.
She and her children walked to school until the end of October, when, as she walked home from dropping her children at school, a car sped past her before she finished walking through the crosswalk, which did not have a guard.
"I'm just petrified that I'm going to witness some kid get hit," she said.