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D’Renna Johnson stood at the intersection of Lyons Avenue and Aldine Street while cars, trucks, and motorcycles whizzed by on Monday afternoon — just as George Washington Carver, a K-8 school, dismissed its students for the day and hundreds of kids streamed out of the building.
All the while, the sky fluctuated between a drizzle and blazing heat. Johnson left her post only to put away her rain jacket or to put it back on. But her eyes remained fixed on the street no matter the weather.
“That was very dangerous!” yelled Johnson to a teenaged boy who ran across Lyons seconds before a bus passed fast enough to spray rain water several feet in the air.
“Sorry ma’am,” he said, as Johnson reminded the young girl trailing behind him to tie her shoe.
For the past year, Johnson has stood guard at various intersections around the city as kids commute between home and school. But she’s not a school crossing guard. She’s the director of the Newark Community Street Team, an outreach organization that tackles violence prevention, offers victim services, and runs Safe Passage, a program working to ensure students get to and from school safely.
For the last three years, Newark Community Street Team and other advocacy groups have been requesting that more crossing guards be stationed throughout Newark.
At the heart of the push is student safety.
According to New Jersey’s 2021 Highway Safety Plan, 22% of pedestrian-involved crashes from 2014-2018 happened between 3 p.m. and 5:59 p.m. — the height of school dismissal and student travel time. Almost 12% of those accidents involved children 15 and younger.
One of the New Jersey Department of Transportation school zone design guides also notes that the “proper placement of well-trained crossing guards is one of the most effective methods” in improving student safety.
But this school year, 87 crossing guard positions in Newark remain unfilled, according to the Newark Police Department. And, since 2021, the number of guards has fallen from 137 to 84.
In Newark, all school crossing guards must be hired by the police department, so Johnson is limited in the duties she’s legally allowed to perform.
“I’m not able to help them actually cross the street because I’m not a crossing guard, but at least I can make sure the little ones are safe,” said Johnson.
On Monday, Johnson estimated that 40 members of the Newark Community Street Team were stationed at high-risk posts throughout Newark. While they aren’t able to act as crossing guards, they can keep an eye on students as they commute.
Pointing down the street, Johnson rattled off the names of seven schools in the area: Weequahic. George Washington Carver. Chancellor Avenue. Chancellor Annex. Eagle Academy. NJ Regional Day School. Bruce Street School for the Deaf.
“But,” she noted, “there’s only one guard around here.”
In a statement to Chalkbeat, Newark Deputy Director of Police Operations Sharonda Morris said the Newark Police Division is actively recruiting school crossing guards and setting up informational tables at senior citizen buildings, precinct community meetings, and community service events.
Newark Community Street Team has continuously proposed solutions to the Newark Police Department and the state legislature since 2020.
Elizabeth Ruebman, managing director and co-founder of Newark Community Street Team, says a New Jersey statute that requires crossing guards be “of good moral character” and not have “been convicted of any criminal offense involving moral turpitude” acts as a barrier.
“Moral turpitude is extremely subjective,” said Ruebman. “We have had many people say to us, ‘I’ve applied and I’m not eligible.’”
Ruebman also noted that other states allow crossing guard hiring to be handled outside of city police departments. In Los Angeles, for example, these positions are managed by the city’s Department of Transportation.
Last year, progress was made when Newark Community Street Team partnered with State Sen. Teresa Ruiz to draft a bill that would make more people eligible to apply. However, Ruebman says she hasn’t heard from Ruiz since March 2022.
Ruiz’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
In January 2022, Ruiz joined Newark Community Street Team’s biweekly roundtable to hear the organization’s suggestions. But at this week’s meeting on Tuesday, which Newark police representatives attended, the same problem was rehashed again: There aren’t enough guards, and the hiring process is obstructing change.
“When I get my granddaughter at Rahway, there’s a crossing guard at every corner,” said Sharon Redding, an activist and Newark Community Street Team member. “Let the [Newark Police Department] director know, tell him, that our children are more important than money.”
And Toby Sanders, Newark Community Street Team’s director of education, said “I’m not begging y’all to start accepting the viability of the formerly incarcerated … I’m saying it’s a must that we do that, because that is where the hope is.”
The organization has worked closely with Parents Educating Parents, a group founded by Yolanda Johnson, a Newark parent, to improve communication between schools and families.
“If I want to see change, I need to step in myself,” said Yolanda Johnson. “Yesterday, I finished orientation to become a crossing guard.”
She was struck by the intensity of the application process.
“It feels like applying to become a police officer,” she said. “They ask if you have even a juvenile record, and you have to provide an explanation with documentation.”
The application asked questions such as: “Have you ever had a record expunged or been accepted into pretrial intervention or Conditional Discharge Program?” and “Have you ever been apprehended by any law enforcement officer as a juvenile?”
Yolanda Johnson was also surprised to find that the application required information about her husband, such as his address and the location and date of their marriage.
“I have a hard time with this issue because my grandma relied on crossing guards to get me to school when I was growing up. She could only walk as far as the porch,” she said. “I know how important crossing guards are.”
At the end of Tuesday’s roundtable, Ruebman concluded “We will always bring this up with great passion because we love the children. This will not go away.”
Newark Community Street Team’s next public safety roundtable will take place on Sept. 28 at 10 a.m.
Samantha Lauten is a fall reporting intern for Chalkbeat Newark covering public education in the city. Get in touch with Samantha at email@example.com or reach the bureau newsroom at firstname.lastname@example.org.