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The City Journals

Guardians of the crosswalks help students everyday

Sep 13, 2021 11:47AM ● By Darrell Kirby

Crossing guards help children safely cross the street at Valley Crest Elementary School in West Valley City on the first day of school in August. (Darrell Kirby/City Journals)

By Darrell Kirby | [email protected]

As students made their way back to school in West Valley City in August, so did dozens of crossing guards near many of those schools. 

About 60 men and women donned yellow vests and picked up their hand-held stop signs to help many of the thousands of children safely cross busy streets near their schools. “We are currently still hiring,” said detective Mike Millett of the West Valley City Police Department’s Traffic Division, which oversees crossing guards in the city, just days before the start of the new school year. He hoped to bolster that number to cover 82 crossings. Some guards are assigned more than one intersection because of varying start times for schools.  

Crossing guards span the spectrum of age and experience. “My most senior guard, this is her 29th year,” Millett said, listing others who have served 22, 16 and 15 years. “It makes it nice because they know what’s going on and they train the new guards.”

Millett said all crossing guards go through a day-long training when hired “where we go over policies and procedures and show them how to do it” followed by a week of on-the-job training with experienced guards. They also undergo background checks and drug and physical tests. 

When possible, guards are assigned to crossings close to their homes for convenience and familiarity with the kids they usher across the street. 

Millett said that half of his crossing guards are stay-at-home parents who walk with their kids to school, do their guard duties, then return when school gets out in the afternoon to repeat the process. Many of the other guards are retirees. “They love doing the job. It gives them a purpose,” he said. “They get to know the kids in the neighborhood and the families.” Several guards work the crossings around part-time jobs at the schools themselves. Some crossing guards are assisted by students serving on the schools’ safety patrols. 

For Jodie Willomitzer, her eight years as a crossing guard is a labor of love. “I love the kids. They’re just so happy. They give me high-fives,” the retiree said between shepherding groups of students and parents to Valley Crest Elementary School on opening day last month. “We’re really protective over the kids. They’re really good about following the rules that we have set out for them and for us, too.”  

The not-so-great part of the job? “Traffic,” Willomitzer said without hesitation. “Drivers don’t slow down. They go through the intersection before we’re off the road.”

Detective Millett said decoys will sometimes enter crosswalks to test motorists’ observance of the 20 mile per hour speed limit and other laws within school zones. Drivers going too fast or who are otherwise unsafe are stopped, educated, and warned as a first option. Tickets are issued for extreme violations. Crossing guards are sometimes subjected to comments and gestures from rude and impatient drivers, but generally shrug it off while focusing on protecting their young pedestrians.   

Crossing guards have been around for about a century. The first crossing guards took to the streets in the early 1920s in St. Paul, Minnesota and Omaha, Nebraska to help slow the growing number of injuries and fatalities as more cars were on the road. Only in 2019 was the National Association of School Crossing Guards organized “due to the impact felt from the deaths of school crossing guards in the line of duty throughout…our nation,” according to the organization’s website. Its stated mission vision “is to create a supportive environment for school crossing guards through communication and the promotion of continued safety education regarding the important role we play in the lives of pedestrian children in crosswalks walking or bicycling to school.” 

Estimates vary, but sources generally put the number of crossing guards in the United States at 60,000 to 70,000. 

“We make sure we have good people to do the job,” Millett said.