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Death of an Everett crossing guard hits home with peers

Crossing guard Sharon Walsh helped students from the William E. Russell School get across Columbia Road safely. Crossing guard Sharon Walsh helped students from the William E. Russell School get across Columbia Road safely. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Martine Powers
Globe Staff / May 26, 2012
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At the T-shaped Dorchester intersection where Columbia Road meets Pond Street, Sharon Walsh and Cecelia Webbe attempt to navigate chaos.

School buses idle and hordes of children wait to cross the street outside Russell Elementary School. About a block away is the intersection with Massachusetts Avenue - it’s a common thoroughfare for ambulances and people seeking a ramp to Interstate 93. Drivers regularly turn right on red, though a sign forbids it.

After an Everett crossing guard was struck and killed by a pickup truck Wednesday, crossing guards and safe streets advocates said they were saddened, but not surprised. For the traffic officials in fluorescent yellow vests, days are filled with drivers and pedestrians distracted by cellphones, in a rush, or who consider crossing guards’ directions to be suggestions, not rules.

The risks crossing guards take each time they step into the street, they said, often go unrecognized.

“I think some people look at us and think that this is a stupid job,’’ Walsh said. “I don’t think they realize what a dangerous job this could be.’’

Marie Stewart, 71, was killed Wednesday after a Massachusetts Water Resources Authority pickup truck plowed into her as she entered a crosswalk outside George Keverian Elementary School.

In 2008, a 59-year-old crossing guard was struck and killed by a car in Dorchester as she tried to help a 10-year-old boy cross the street.

Two other crossing guards employed by the Boston Police Department have been injured on the job in the last decade, according to a spokesman. That department employs 198 crossing guards, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation employs about 40.

S.J. Port, spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said crossing guards receive four hours of classroom training before they are taken to their posts and tested on their ability to guide pedestrians through that particular intersection.

For children on their way to school, crossing the street is usually the most dangerous part of the trip, said Nancy Pullen-Seufert, associate director of the National Center for Safe Routes to School, an organization based in North Carolina.

“There are lots and lots of parents who feel comfortable sending their child to school by foot or by bicycle because they know that a crossing guard is part of a child’s trip to school,’’ Pullen-Seufert said.

Crossing guards in Somerville, Springfield, and Lexington have recently unionized with SEIU Local 888, said Alex Reusing, an organizer for the union. Many crossing guards do not have the tools they need to effectively perform their jobs. Reusing said they cannot issue tickets to drivers who violate traffic laws, and police are sometimes unresponsive to requests from crossing guards.

Many are paid little more than minimum wage, he said. “It’s a tough job, and they’re not compensated for that,’’ Reusing said.

Outside Russell Elementary School, Webbe explained that the complexities of steering children and adults safely across Columbia Road during one of the busiest times of the day often require near-clairvoyant anticipation.

“You get to know people, and you know their habits,’’ Webbe said. “Most of the time, you know how they’re going to put themselves in danger, and you’ve got to prevent that.’’

Sometimes people yell at them - Webbe and Walsh said they’ve heard more than their fair share of “Get out of the street, you idiot!’’ - but they still love their job, they said.

After afternoon traffic had died down, a white-haired woman passed the two crossing guards, shaking her head.

“I was thinking about you guys when I saw about that lady in Everett,’’ the woman said.

Walsh nodded.

“She seemed like a crossing guard like us, someone who is nice and friendly and does it without expecting anything in return,’’ Walsh said.

But those are the risks of being a crossing guard, she continued.

“I don’t like to think like that, being scared and thinking, ‘Oh, I could get hit by a car today,’ ’’ Walsh said. “I couldn’t do this job if I always had that in the back of my mind.’’

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

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