Back to school means back to work for school crossing guards on Treasure Coast

·7 min read

You couldn’t miss them.

A host of men and women donning bright yellow shirts and hats — some also had neon shoes — with whistles and stop signs one morning late last week in front of Floresta Elementary School in Port St. Lucie.

The conspicuous clothing making this group stand out was by design. They are part of the Port St. Lucie Police Department’s school crossing guards program, and were preparing for the start of school Wednesday.

Schools in St. Lucie, Indian River and Martin counties all begin that day.

Back to school in Martin County: Martin County students head back to class for the 2022-23 school year

“We obviously don't want our children to be run over by traffic,” said Jennie Salema, crossing guard supervisor. “So they're there to keep the children safe, to safely cross them to and from school.”

Police Cmdr. Leo Niemczyk said police provide crossing guards at elementary and middle schools in Port St. Lucie, with the standard shift being two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. Some work in multiple locations, and their role is an important one.

Port St. Lucie Police School Crossing Guard Linda Pierce (center) plays the part of a student while leading a group across Southeast Floresta Drive during  the Port St. Lucie Police crossing guard's annual Traffic Certification Training on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022, at Floresta Elementary School in Port St Lucie. Forty guards participated in the annual certification exercise to staff 66 posts at schools across the city for the start of the school year beginning on Wednesday, August 10.
Port St. Lucie Police School Crossing Guard Linda Pierce (center) plays the part of a student while leading a group across Southeast Floresta Drive during the Port St. Lucie Police crossing guard's annual Traffic Certification Training on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022, at Floresta Elementary School in Port St Lucie. Forty guards participated in the annual certification exercise to staff 66 posts at schools across the city for the start of the school year beginning on Wednesday, August 10.

Much of the preparation in Port St. Lucie can be applied across the Treasure Coast, as all go through training before school starts

“Not everybody is a conscientious motorist that is aware that we have 20 mph school zones, not to mention the cars coming in and out of the school, create an obstacle for motorists traveling as well as make it difficult for kids to judge when it's safe to cross the street,” Niemczyk said.

Last year, Martin County sheriff’s officials experienced a “critical shortage” of crossing guards, and covered some crossings with traffic and road patrol deputies and community service aides, Chief Deputy John Budensiek said. Eleven positions were vacant, and of the remaining crossing guards, eight were out with long-term illnesses, he said.

Port St. Lucie Police School Crossing Guard Venol Joseph keeps traffic stopped along Southeast Floresta Drive as other crossing guards play the part of students during their crossing guard's annual Traffic Certification Training at Floresta Elementary School on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022, in Port St. Lucie. "We have to have good training to keep the kids safe," Joseph said. "We don't want anyone to be hurt."
Port St. Lucie Police School Crossing Guard Venol Joseph keeps traffic stopped along Southeast Floresta Drive as other crossing guards play the part of students during their crossing guard's annual Traffic Certification Training at Floresta Elementary School on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022, in Port St. Lucie. "We have to have good training to keep the kids safe," Joseph said. "We don't want anyone to be hurt."

The optimum crossing guard staffing level in Martin County is 35, and they currently have 27. The agency is trying to hire more.

“It was all-hands-on-deck (last year), just to make our children safe as they were coming to school,” Budensiek said. “This year, we're starting off in a strong position with 27.”

Crossing guards at the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office also are prepared for the new year, said Lt. Joe Abollo, agency spokesperson.

Abollo said most crossing guards are in the position as a second or third career. They enjoy giving back to the community and show obvious compassion for the children.

“Some have one-on-one relationships with the kids over time, they just start knowing them by name,” Abollo said. “It’s a really cool dynamic to see these folks doing this, and honestly, they don't do it for the money.”

'In my blood'

One crossing guard in Port St. Lucie is Mary Ziener, who said she drove school buses for 17 years in New Jersey.

“I enjoy being around with the kids and I was a school bus driver so I guess the school stuff is in my blood,” Ziener said.

Ziener, in her fifth year as a crossing guard, said she likes the schedule, noting it allows summers, holidays and weekends off.

Still, sometimes the drivers are “crazy.”

“They don't pay attention. They're on their cell phone,” Ziener said. “They're speeding, they're yelling at you, but that all comes with the territory.”

Niemczyk said for motorists who could get aggressive, lose patience or not follow rules, their tag number will be noted.

“I send an officer out to the house to have a friendly conversation with them,” he said.

Salema said before each school year, the crossing guards are mandated by the state to have training.

“They practice all the traffic control techniques, and the crossing techniques,” she said.

Forty crossing guards will be ready to go this year in Port St. Lucie, Salema said.

Ardy Dargahi, 75, said he’s in his second year as a crossing guard, and is a father and grandfather. After retiring, he “decided to help my community, make my children safer, future-of-America safer.”

Dargahi also said he wants to try to educate drivers around school areas.

Henry Singleton, 76, is a crossing guard with Dargahi, Ziener and others in Port St. Lucie. He said he is retired and could relax or go fishing, but wanted to become a crossing guard. He enjoys the job, saying he gets to interact with children.

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'No.1 goal'

St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Brian Hester said his agency has 10 crossing guards assigned to four schools, including Fort Pierce Westwood Academy, Lakewood Park Elementary, Northport K-8 and Forest Grove Middle School.

Hester said they haven’t experienced difficulty filling the positions, and often recruit from the agency’s more than 400 volunteers. The St. Lucie sheriff’s crossing guards work 90 minutes in the morning and 90 minutes the afternoon, he said.

Whistle in hand, Port St. Lucie Police School Crossing Guard Teresa Gasparre (center) stands in the middle of Southeast Floresta Drive to keeps her mock students safe crossing the roadway during the crossing guard's annual Traffic Certification Training on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022, across from Floresta Elementry School in Port St. Lucie. "It protects our kids," Gasparre said. "because I enjoy kids, and working, and I want the kids to be safe."
Whistle in hand, Port St. Lucie Police School Crossing Guard Teresa Gasparre (center) stands in the middle of Southeast Floresta Drive to keeps her mock students safe crossing the roadway during the crossing guard's annual Traffic Certification Training on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022, across from Floresta Elementry School in Port St. Lucie. "It protects our kids," Gasparre said. "because I enjoy kids, and working, and I want the kids to be safe."

“I think for all of our agencies on the Treasure Coast, these part-time positions as crossing guards are instrumental,” Hester said.

Budensiek said crossing guards were at the Sheriff’s Office three days last week going through orientation and required training.

“Our No. 1 goal is the safety of our children that are coming and going from school,” he said. “If we can't get them there safely, then we've already failed our mission.”

Lt. Michael Gerwan, Stuart police spokesperson, said the Martin County Sheriff's Office provides crossing guards for schools in the City of Stuart.

Niemczyk, of the Port St. Lucie police, said police have challenges hiring crossing guards, as well as other employees. Last year, the Port St. Lucie school crossing guard wage increased to $15.50 a hour, which made it a bit easier to bring in new guards.

Other agencies, such as the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office, reported generally similar wage amounts. The Indian River County Sheriff's Office starting pay for crossing guards is $12.24 an hour, topping out at $21, according to Abollo.

Abollo said some crossing guards go to different schools because some open at different times. For example, one guard who covers Gifford Middle School also is at Dodgertown Elementary School. The agency as nine crossing guards.

“There's a lot of children that still traditionally walk to school or ride a bicycle," Abollo said. "We want to make certain that here in our county, they're being seen and watched as they're commuting back and forth to school and they're crossing our roadways safely."

Master Police Officer Darrell Rivers, Vero Beach police spokesperson, said his agency does not have crossing guards because the need isn't there. There are two public elementary schools in Vero Beach, and either parents or school resource officers walk the kids across streets, he said.

Niemczyk said the agency has enough crossing guards, but the first week of school always is challenging as motorists don’t expect the increased traffic or delays in school zones.

“If you don't have children you're not necessarily aware of when school begins,” he said. “We always have increased traffic volume on the streets and congestion as a result of that volume.”

Further, he said, parents tend to drop children off at school in the first week, as opposed to sending them on a bus or letting them walk. That creates more traffic at schools.

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Niemczyk said last year Port St. Lucie police issued more than 53,000 citations, of which about 10,000 were in or near school zones. 

Niemczyk implored motorists to watch for the crossing guards’ bright shirts, and remember to drive 20 mph when the yellow lights flash.

“Watch for children, anticipate that they're going to step out in traffic in front of you, and please stay off your phones, especially, especially in school zones,” Niemczyk said.

Will Greenlee is a breaking news reporter for TCPalm. Follow Will on Twitter @OffTheBeatTweet or reach him by phone at 772-267-7926. E-mail him at will.greenlee@tcpalm.com

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This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: School crossing guards prep for new year on Treasure Coast