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Until recently, it wasn’t unusual for Scott Boyd to see an early morning email pop up in his inbox: Students are crossing six lanes of traffic alone because there’s no crossing guard at Sunset Park Elementary near Windermere.
“It happened often,” said Boyd, the Orange County commissioner who represents the west part of the county.
Think about how dangerous that is. Students playing Frogger across State Road 535 and Overstreet Road, one of the county’s scariest intersections.
Not exactly the image Orange County needs as it tries to clean up a reputation as the most dangerous place in the country for pedestrians.
Especially when we’re talking about something as fundamental as keeping children safe.
“We just don’t have enough crossing guards in this community, and we need more people to apply for that job,” said School Board member Pam Gould, who represents the west side of the county.
As of Friday, Orange County was short 31 crossing guards at about two dozen elementary and middle schools outside city limits.
Eight elementary schools don’t have any crossing guards at all because the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the program, hasn’t been able to fill the slots.
By comparison, only one of the 36 elementary schools in Seminole County — Sabal Point — doesn’t have crossing guards, the county’s only two vacancies.
“It’s critical the community steps forward to apply for the positions,” said Georgene Rye, assistant director of human resources at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s a perfect job for retirees or stay-at-home moms or people who want to be active in their community.”
The Sheriff’s Office is covering seven of the 31 open positions with substitute guards, but there aren’t enough subs to cover all the vacancies.
For a time, Sunset’s teachers, administrators and even parents would stand in if they noticed no guard was on the corner.
The School Board’s attorneys didn’t like that for liability reasons.
So for the past two weeks the school district has paid an off-duty deputy sheriff to be at the intersection — a far more expensive solution because a deputy costs about three times more per hour than crossing guards.
“That was a big decision because we’re taking dollars from somewhere else,” Gould said. “That’s not where we want our core educational dollars to go, but you’ve got to protect the kids.”
Crossing guards get paid $10.33 an hour.
One reason it’s so hard to attract people to the job, though, is that most guards only work two hours a day during school drop-off and pick-up.
On top of the split schedule, guards must endure cold mornings, hot afternoons and the occasional rain storm.
And there’s another detractor: rude, impatient drivers who pay more attention to their phones than the kids in the crosswalk.
“A lot of people aren’t so nice with their gestures through the windshield,” Boyd said.
He said too many drivers don’t respect the crosswalk and stop, as the law requires, when students have the signal and are attempting to cross. A guard was hit by a car as recently as November.
“Nobody wants to wait,” said Tony Calabro, who worked as a crossing guard and a supervisor for the program for 12 years before retiring last year. “Everybody’s in a big rush.”
Dangerous and distracted drivers aside, Calabro said he loved the job.
“I had a lot of students and I still see them today; they were in car seats and now they’re graduating from high school,” he told me. “They see me; they beep their horns and say hello. It’s really about keeping the children safe.”
He remembers the cards and cookies he would receive from some of the kids on Christmas or at the end of the school year.
“That was a good feeling,” he said. “I met a lot of people.”
If only there were more Tony Calabros out there willing to help kids get to school safely, and make a little extra money, too.
By Beth Kassab, Orlando Sentinel
Copyright © 2015, Orlando Sentinel