On Jan. 3, 8-year-old Steven Cuevas stepped onto New Hampshire Avenue near its intersection with Emerson Street NW. He looked both ways as he moved onto the road, but, excited to see a friend, he didn’t spot an oncoming SUV.
An artistic child who wrote his own comic books, Steven had been walking home from Barnard Elementary School with his grandmother and 10-year-old brother. But in that moment, neither was near enough to prevent the collision, which sent his small body flying through the air. Steven was taken to Children’s National Medical Center in critical condition.
According to his mother, Elba Chacon, that stretch of New Hampshire had long been an accident waiting to happen. Two elementary schools stand nearby, requiring scores of children to cross every day. Many drivers ignore the 30 mph speed limit. In spite of all this, “there’s no stop sign, no ‘school crossing’ sign,” she says.
And no crossing guard. Chacon says Steven’s accident “never would have happened if there was a crossing guard there.”
The city hasn’t designated New Hampshire and Emerson as an intersection that needs a crossing guard. Unfortunately, it might not get one even if it were on the list. There’s a shortage of crossing guards in D.C.; there aren’t nearly enough for the intersections already earmarked.
“This has been an issue for 21 years,” says Joel Maupin, commander of the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) 7th District, who says the shortage is citywide. The 7th District, which encompasses the southern part of the city east of the Anacostia River, has only 17 crossing guards for 31 school crossings designated as needing guards.
Assistant Chief Shannon Cockett, director of the police department’s Office of Human Services, says the city currently employs 123 crossing guards . She declined to say how many intersections have been designated as needing crossing guards. However, in 2002, Executive Assistant Chief Mike Fitzgerald told the Board of Education’s Committee on Special Education and Student Services that each day, 62 police officers are assigned to fill in for crossing guards missing from designated intersections.
The police still use officers to make up for the crossing-guard deficit. The problem with that system is obvious: “When you pull an officer to do crossing-guard duty, you take them away from somewhere else,” says Maupin. “[Placing officers at intersections] is a drain on our resources, but it’s something we have to do.”
Observe a police-tended intersection over the course of a few days and you’ll see another problem with the system: Sometimes the officers don’t show up. They may be responding to an emergency call, but that doesn’t help the kids who have to brave traffic on their own.
Asked about the reason for the shortage, Maupin says, “The city has a problem keeping crossing guards because it’s a low-paying position.” According to the MPD’s Office of Human Services, salaries for crossing guards start at $19,062. (However, they work only four hours per day—two in the morning, two in the afternoon.)
It takes a special kind of moxie to face down testy D.C. drivers, armed with nothing more than a whistle. Also, crossing guards must work in all types of weather, barring that which closes schools. Nonetheless, and despite Maupin’s assertion, there are people lined up for the job.
In Anacostia, for instance, there is a woman on the job with all the trappings of a crossing guard—she’s got the orange slicker and the yellow vest with “CROSSING GUARD” printed on the back, and she works her whistle as well as an NBA ref. She greets the elementary-schoolers (“my kids,” as she calls them) as she helps them across the street and seems as much a fixture as the stripes she stands on.
But she isn’t a crossing guard—at least, not a paid one. She’s been volunteering at a school in Anacostia for the past two years in the hopes that it will help her get hired. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed, hoping [the MPD] will show appreciation,” she says. (She asked that her name not appear in print, worried that her comments might hurt her chances.)
The volunteer isn’t put off by the pay rate, which works out to more than twice minimum wage. And the workday of a crossing guard works well with the grandmother’s schedule. Also, this part-time job comes with full-time benefits, including health and life insurance, a retirement plan, and leave time.
She has applied for a crossing-guard job and been told to wait—and wait and wait. “They haven’t hired because of [budget] deficits,” she says. “If Mayor Williams hadn’t asked for a baseball stadium, I’d have a paycheck.”
The Anacostia volunteer isn’t the only one hoping to get hired. Denise Barnes, a paid crossing guard who also serves as shop steward for the crossing guards’ union in the 7th District, says she knows of volunteers who have been working as long as six years, hoping to get hired.
To watch Barnes on a cold, rainy January morning is to see crossing-guard work at its harshest. Her beat is the concrete patch in Anacostia where 23rd Street SE and the Suitland Parkway access ramp dump vehicles onto Alabama Avenue SE.
Just up Alabama sits Garfield Elementary School. Barnes’ kids must make two or three crossings, depending on which side of Alabama they come from. She struggles to get them across the Suitland access ramp before the light changes while simultaneously scanning the direction they came from for stragglers. “Keep going, baby!” she shouts to one nervous child.
Barnes has been a crossing guard for 24 years; she took over this spot 14 years ago, when the woman before her was hit by a car on the job and refused to return. “I said I’d do it,” she says. “Someone has to.” In her ankle-length orange slicker and black hood, she looks as watertight as a Cape Cod fisherman.
According to Barnes, the need for crossing guards has only increased over her years on the job. “Times have changed,” she says. “Drivers are worse. They talk on their cell phones.” She has respect for the volunteer crossing guards. “I wouldn’t come out if I wasn’t getting paid,” she says.
Several years ago, Tommy Wells, who represents Wards 5 and 6 on the Board of Education, tried to get the hiring process moving. In 2002, he also co-chaired the board’s Committee on Special Education and Student Services, which led efforts to get crossing guards placed at all intersections that needed them. The board requested action from the mayor, but the police department, not the mayor’s office, is in charge of hiring crossing guards.
“The city council claims to have provided funds [for all needed crossing guards],” says Wells. “We were told finances aren’t the problem. But the police divert the funds to other things.” He says that it’s just not a priority for the MPD.
“That’s simply not true,” says Cockett. “We’re only authorized for so many positions. We’re filling all vacant positions for crossing guards that we have budgeted.”
Wells also says that Mayor Anthony A. Williams has not exerted his authority with Police Chief Charles Ramsey on this issue. Sharon Gang, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, says, “The mayor is concerned, but the chief of police is the mayor’s representative in this issue.”
If it were up to him, Wells says, he would transfer the crossing-guard funds to the school system. “We could hire them,” he says. “We know parents, grandparents, and retired folks [who would take the jobs].”
The fight may soon move to the D.C. Council. Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson has been concerned about the crossing-guard situation for some time. In November 2003, she wrote a letter to Williams in which she said that the shortage of school crossing guards “has been a persistent problem in that the program has been housed within the Metropolitan Police Department, yet is not given the priority it should have based on the other competing demands within the agency.”
Patterson says she got no response from the mayor. Recently, however, she became the chair of the council’s Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation. “We’ll be looking at this issue,” she says.
The situation may be getting better—somewhat. On Jan. 21, the MPD announced its intention to hire 36 new crossing guards. “We’re looking for 34 entry-level positions and two lead positions,” says Cockett. “The money for these crossing guards is immediately available.” The hirings still won’t put crossing guards at all designated intersections.
Naturally, this news delighted the Anacostia volunteer, who was recently told that she is in line for one of the new positions. But the new hires will merely shrink the shortage, not expand coverage to dangerous but unguarded intersections such as New Hampshire Avenue and Emerson Street NW. As of press time, Steven Cuevas is still in a coma.
Wells can name a lot of intersections he’d like to see covered, but the lack of a crossing guard at the site of Steven’s accident makes him fume. “We’re grown-ups,” he says. “We should be able to figure something out.”CP