Story and photos by Holly Marcus, contributor
“When I was your age, I used to walk to school everyday…uphill…both ways…” the old saying goes. Chances are good, if the person telling you that is over a certain age, at least the first part of that statement is true. According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, “In 1969, 48 percent of children 5 to 14 years of age usually walked or bicycled to school.” By 2009, that number had dropped to 13 percent. Surveys show the biggest reasons for the decline are that more children live farther away from school, as well as concerns for traffic-related danger, weather and crime. In Harrisonburg a further complication is added – the lack of crossing guards.
Out of the six elementary schools in the city, only two have crossing guards employed to keep a watchful eye on children walking or biking to school. At Spotswood Elementary, Anne Byrd has been working as a crossing guard for more than 10 years. During that time, she has watched the children who cross her street grow up and has gotten to know families.
In 2017 Byrd was selected as one of Virginia’s Most Outstanding Crossing Guards. She was nominated for the award after intervening during an incident where a child was approached by a stranger. Byrd noticed an unfamiliar vehicle a short distance from her post that pulled up alongside a child who was leaving school for the day. When the driver exited the vehicle and approached the child, Byrd intervened. She then personally drove the student home and filed a report of the incident with the police department.
At Waterman Elementary, Mary Boitnott has served as the school’s crossing guard for five years.
“I do my best to keep kids safe,” she said, recalling an accident she had several years ago. In 2018 Boitnott was struck by a vehicle as she was stopping traffic for a child to cross the street. Boitnott said the driver stated that the bright morning sun prevented them from being able to see her as they made a turn at the intersection, even though Boitnott was wearing a high-visibility vest. The child she was guarding had just made it across the street seconds before Boitnott was struck.
“I only remember brief moments around my accident. I do remember asking someone to ‘Please check on the the little girl,’” she recalled.
After recovering from a broken leg, Boitnott had no doubts that she wanted to return to her duty as a crossing guard. “I couldn’t give up my kids,” she said simply. More than just keeping them safe, Boitnott says she stays attentive to the mood of the children who cross her street, offering support or encouragement to those that seem like they could use some cheering up.
Both Boitnott and Byrd have noticed a higher number of children deciding to take the “fresh air” route so far this school year, each guard watching over 20 students walk, bike or scooter themselves to school.
Parents at the city’s other schools have expressed interest in having their own crossing guards. Keister Elementary used to have two guards at the intersection of S. High Street and Maryland Avenue. Parents of students who attend there are again hoping that a crossing guard would be considered for children wanting to walk or bike to school from adjacent neighborhoods.
Despite both Byrd and Boitnott expressing the positive aspects of the job, it is a hard position to fill. School crossing guards are currently managed by Harrisonburg Police Department, who pays them.
“It’s been a challenge for years,” Eric King, a Sentara RMH employee who is the division coordinator of the Safe Routes to School program in Harrisonburg, said of finding more local crossing guards.
“It’s hard to get interest, because of its odd hours,” he said, noting that the crossing guard position requires less than an hour’s commitment in each the morning and afternoon.
“You have to be out in all weather conditions,” noted Boitnott. Both she and Byrd fill the hours in between school opening and closing by doing parking enforcement for HPD downtown.
King said that in Richmond’s schools, the crossing guard position was moved out of the police department and into the school system where it is comprised of a number of parent and teacher volunteers, an idea that he suggested that Harrisonburg look into.
In the meantime, the Safe Routes to School program, which promotes children walking or biking to school, works with Harrisonburg’s Public Works to make traffic areas around schools as safe as possible for kindergartners to 8th graders.
Safe Routes to School has worked with Public Works to implement increased safety measures such as signage and providing “See Me” flags at crosswalks. These are handheld flags that a pedestrian takes from a bin and waves as they cross the street, depositing them in the bin on the other side. The program also organized and had success with a “walking school bus ” (a supervised group walk where an adult accompanies several children) in certain neighborhoods.
King said the idea of raised street crossing walkways is also being looked into. On the City of Harrisonburg’s website, maps show proposed future walk zones in neighborhoods surrounding schools. “These maps are guides to help parents select a route for their student to walk or bike to school. Each map includes landmarks, existing pedestrian infrastructure, current or planned school walk zones, and approximate distance and travel time between some locations and the school,” the site states.
While the prospect of adding more school crossing guards in the city is uncertain, both Byrd and Boitnott say you’ll find them standing in the crosswalk every morning and afternoon that school is open into the future.
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