With some working double duty due to shortage, Baltimore County crossing guards dedicated to kids' safety

Erica Russo and her family live just about a quarter mile from Westchester Elementary School, where she has one child in first grade and one in fifth grade.

But because one side of Old Frederick Road doesn’t have sidewalks and Westchester Elementary doesn’t have a dedicated crossing guard — or even a crosswalk that spans Old Frederick Road — Erica Russo only lets her older child, Rachel, walk to school, and only when the weather is clear.

“We didn’t let her walk to school by herself until this year,” Russo said, and part of the reason Rachel Russo is allowed to walk to school is because she’s a member of the school’s safety patrol and has a “bright yellow belt.”

“Sometimes it’s just easier to put your kids on the bus, because you don’t have to worry about it,” Russo said. “But it also seems like it may not be the most cost-efficient idea for the school system to continue to have to bus children who live within two or three blocks of the school because we don’t have a part-time crossing guard.”

In Baltimore County, some schools such as Westchester Elementary, do not have crossing guards assigned to them. But there are also assigned crossing guard positions that have not been filled, which impacts the Baltimore County Police Department because officers have to cover where there are shortages.

Officer Jonathan Strickler, the Baltimore County Police Department staff member who administers the crossing guard program, said there are 270 crossing guard positions, but only 193 of those positions are filled.

Some of those 193 serve at more than one school, cutting the deficit by about 50 posts, Strickler said. Those guards typically serve at a middle school for start times close to 8 a.m. and then at an elementary school for start times around 9 a.m. Only 109 of 174 schools and other BCPS properties and programs have crossing guards.

Brandon Oland, a spokesman for Baltimore County Public Schools, said in an email that schools can request posts where they think a crossing guard “proves helpful.”

The school system does not have countywide data on how many are eligible to ride the bus, Oland said.

Strickler said he was unsure of why there is a shortage of the part-time crossing guards, but that it could be due, in part, to shift times changing with little notice if the school day is delayed or if a school releases early, which can be problematic for guards who work other jobs or have other obligations.

He also said being a crossing guard is “true” part-time work, because folks are only on the job in the morning and afternoon and people seeking more employment hours might not apply.

In Baltimore County, the position pays $13.04 an hour, and guards can incur paid leave. By comparison, guards in Howard County make $14 an hour, while the average hourly wage for a crossing guard in the U.S. is $11.59, according to career website indeed.com. Guards are typically asked to work two hours per day, Monday through Friday (one hour in the morning and one in the afternoon), though they can pick up additional shifts.

The county provides equipment, like stop signs and whistles, and uniforms for the guards, who do not lose pay if schools are closed due to inclement weather. Positions are typically advertised online through the county police department.

“The hours may not be the best,” Strickler said, “but the guards, everyone I talk to, they enjoy it.”

Applicants are also subject to a drug screening, a physical examination (as the position requires walking and standing for long periods) and a background check. The application to be a school crossing guard can be found online at http://agency.governmentjobs.com/baltimorecounty/default.cfm. Training for a guard is handled by the police department and includes an orientation plus two days of service with an experienced guard.

The shortage of guards creates issues outside of the immediate school community, Strickler said.

“If we have a shortage of guards, it becomes problematic for the officers,” because police officers are deployed off their usual beat to work as a crossing guard, he said.

Nicholas Stewart, the outgoing Board of Education vice chairman and representative for Council District 1 in the southwestern part of the county, said school crossing guards were important but that they aren’t typically an issue handled by the school board.

“It is a BCPD thing in the first instance,” Stewart said. “We would encourage any interested neighbors to share their time and work, even if on a limited basis, in service to our kids and their safety. There is nothing more important to those involved in, or contributing to, education than safety.”

The Wilkens police precinct in southwestern Baltimore County has 28 crossing guard positions and five open posts; Towson has 26 posts and two open positions; Dundalk, with 56 posts, is the region of the county with the most crossing guards. There are currently no unfilled posts in the Dundalk area, Strickler said.

Hillcrest Elementary School, in Catonsville, has two dedicated crossing guards, who Principal Jennifer Lynch called “wonderful.”

“They really are great; they’re just so dependable,” Lynch said. “They are the first people related to the school who anyone comes into contact with. They’re being greeted by our crossing guards. They’re kind, [and] they greet families, [which] really sets the tone for families.”

Pat Eisenhardt, 70, has been one of the crossing guards at Hillcrest for 24 years. She said she’s been around long enough that she’s seen the children of previous students attending the school.

“It’s a great feeling, because they come back and they’re happy to see me,” Eisenhardt said. “It’s a privilege for me because I’ve got to know many families and they’re family to me, you know.”

Dawna Manger, a Catonsville resident who lives just about a mile from Hillcrest, said her daughter Jaiden usually rides the bus. But there are occasions when the fifth-grader doesn’t want to sit on the bus, especially given that the Mangers live relatively close to the school. “I think [the guards] are great,” Manger said. “She wants to ride her bike and wants to walk, and we have on occasion, and they’ve always been great.”

cboteler@baltsun.com

twitter.com/codyboteler

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