Next Monday, I’ll appear before City Council to represent the Charlottesville City Schools crossing guards to appeal for a pilot program to enforce speed limits by camera.
It’s a new intervention legalized by the Virginia General Assembly in 2020. We hope to pilot three critical high traffic, high speed and high risk areas: one at Clark Elementary, soon to be officially renamed “Summit,” one at Buford Middle School on Cherry Avenue, and also at yet-to-be-renamed Johnson Elementary.
See it from our perspective. At Buford on Cherry Avenue, vehicles tear up the hill from Roosevelt Brown Boulevard. From the crossing post just over the crest of the hill, you hear the engines engaging hard before you see the hood. Does the digital sign facing those oncoming cars, the one that flashes “Your Speed Is __,” encourage folks to accelerate faster? From the other direction toward Fry’s Spring, cars often cruise past the flashing school zone sign without slowing down.
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We blow our whistles, gesture with gloved hands and call “SLOW DOWN.” Some people slow, some slow and wave, and some people’s attention is elsewhere. Yes, cell phones are a big issue, but we also see drivers who look at us but whose thoughts must be miles away from the road. Many drivers ignore us, or worse flip us the bird or roll down their windows to shower us with insults and curses.
Just a few weeks after school began last fall, while shadowing an experienced crossing guard, Jaime Wayne, I watched as a guy stopped in the middle of Cherry, got out of his car, ranting and striding aggressively toward her. A police van happened to be stopped nearby and, after a while, an officer asked the driver to be on his way.
At both Johnson and Buford, I’ve jumped with arms out — possessed by the instinct of a mother bear — between speeding oncoming cars and a child. It’s happened to me three or four times already since the school year began — and I’m a substitute.
After shadowing and subbing for the regular crossing guards for a few months, I shared my concerns during the public comment part of a Charlottesville City Council meeting. But at this Monday’s meeting, the crossing guards will be one voice among others. City traffic engineer, Brennen Duncan, will give an update on using traffic cameras and perhaps parents and community members who want drivers to slow down will speak too.
More about how students get to school
Here’s the backstory of why I will speak up: Last summer, I began seeing posted pleas for crossing guard applicants. By then, folks well knew of the bus driver shortage. Parents and guardians anxiously asked themselves how their child would get to school while roadsides sprouted cheerful “Charlottesville Walks to School” signs.
I was safely exempt from the transportation madness (my daughter is away in college and my son, who drives, attends Charlottesville High School) and had enough flexibility in my schedule to take on shifts as a substitute, so I navigated the online application portal. (The listing for a crossing guard from last summer is still open.) Before long I was background checked, geared up and ready to go.
Sometimes I join Wayne at the Johnson and Buford crossing armed with the Bushnell Velocity Speed Gun my husband gave me for Christmas. Cars really slow down when they see me point the device at them to measure their speed. Having an empirical number helps validate our wisdom, especially when people deny going over 15 mph.
I’d prefer drivers would slow down without cameras or radar guns. I think all of us do.
But 15 mph, the speed limit around schools when children and crossing guards are present, feels ridiculously slow to most drivers. For a few long strides, you can even walk beside a vehicle at that pace. It’s like driving over a speed hump when your bladder is full and the holier-than-thou neighbors are watching and your grandmother is in the back seat — it’s that kind of slow.
But your slowness helps us do our jobs safely. It could easily save a life. See those flashing yellows? Slow ridiculously down.
Crossing guards are mighty with our reflective vests, rainproof pants and whistle at the ready, but we are not superheroes. We cannot alter the laws of physics. We can keep our eyes peeled for anything that threatens the safety of our charges. We can know and care if they’ve had a good day, or what they’re looking forward to this weekend, or what classes they like best. We can love your kids. In fact, we do.
At Buford Middle School, the morning after the Dec. 7 All-City Band Concert, kids crossed the street with instruments in hand.
“Nice job last night. I saw you on the stage — was that your Mom with you?”
“The CHS marching band was awesome!” one student declared with wide eyed enthusiasm.
“You think you’ll join?” I asked.
Some students wait longer for the CAT city bus, the number 4. There, I learn who is celebrating Lunar New Year and with what dishes, who got a new hoodie for Christmas, and sometimes the students provide a lively choral back up with their own “Slow down!” directed at passing drivers.
I’ve developed some unexpected new skills and new relationships as a crossing guard. The physicality of blowing whistles and gesturing boldly informs my own sense of personal boundaries, and what on-the-ground civic collaboration feels like. When you pause traffic to let a line of pupil-packed school buses on their way through Rugby on Rose Hill and the drivers all open their windows, waving as they go, it feels like community.
It’s like driving over a speed hump when your bladder is full and the holier-than-thou neighbors are watching and your grandmother is in the back seat — it’s that kind of slow.—Adrienne Dent on how slow drivers should go around schools when crossing guards are present
One thing I didn’t know, and I think many people don’t know, is that Charlottesville crossing guards are an institution long dedicated to the children they serve. This is a town where a stranger at Tonsler Park who sees me in my uniform will ask me to say hello to Ms. Dolores with a smile on his face that says she was sunshine to him some 15 years ago. Charlottesville is a town where a daughter and father and his wife all drive from different counties daily to don their fluorescent vests, stand in the snow and rain, and arrive before the sun even rises.
Next Monday, I’ll appear before our City Council because drivers are reckless — and we as crossing guards want to protect our children. Your rush is not our rush. Your distraction is not our distraction. An off-the-shelf radar gun and shouting, “Slow down!” has not adequately influenced drivers’ speed.
About 1,100 students are not eligible for bus service, according to Charlottesville City Schools. Given the on-going shortage of student transportation options and a police force unable to provide accountability from drivers, I believe speed cameras present the best next step for their safety. It is our hope that, when new signs indicating camera enforcement go up, drivers will truly slow down.
And a deep bow to you drivers who do go slow, who even smile and wave or roll down your window to say, “Have a great day.” We appreciate you more than you know.
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