Speed spurs school safety concerns

By Greg Gelpi

Armed only with a thin sign and a bright yellow jacket, Becky Crow stepped out into speeding traffic.

With knowledge that another school crossing guard was killed at the same spot years earlier and that three children were hit a few years ago, she continues her job, but can't understand why traffic continues to speed past, ignoring the flashing yellow lights of the school zone.

At her post in front of Swint Elementary School at 500 Ga. Highway 138 in Jonesboro, she and her fellow crossing guard Norma Gant watch as cars, trucks, tractor-trailers and even Clayton County police and Clayton County sheriff's deputies rush through the school zone with little regard for the posted 25 mph speed limit.

"Police should set the example, but they speed too," Swint Elementary Principal Frank Rezek said.

Clayton County Police Capt. Jeff Turner said that if police are speeding they shouldn't be.

"They're supposed to be obeying the same speed limits as everyone else unless they're in an emergency situation," Turner said.

Rezek, who has been principal at Swint since 1972, knows what can come from excessive speeds in school zones.

"When I heard the screech and I heard the hit, I knew the crossing guard was dead," he said, recalling an accident in front of Swint years ago. "It just ran cold chills through me, and people are still driving too fast."

Flashing lights border the school zone telling motorists of the 25 mph speed limit, but no one observes that speed limit, Gant said.

"It's horrible," Gant said. "It's a really serious problem."

Crow, who has been a crossing guard for 17 years, quit her job after seeing the three school children hit, unable to deal with the trauma, and since then traffic and speeding have become worse.

"I've had them bump me," she said, explaining that a car hit her about two or three weeks ago while stopping traffic. "When you train people out here, they get scared."

Capt. Tom Israel, head of the Clayton County police traffic enforcement division, said that police monitor three or four school zones throughout the county each day, issuing about 40 tickets on average each morning or afternoon of enforcement.

"School zone enforcement has always been one of our top priorities," Israel said. "But, it is a problem because (drivers) don't pay attention to the signs. We give very few warnings in school zones."

According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, all signs, including signs designating school zones, are posted based on the national standards and guidelines set forth by the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices, Bert Brantley, a spokesman for the department, said.

"The minimum requirement is that standard," Brantley said. "There are certain instances when we will do more."

And, this is an instance when someone should do more, Crow said.

"If you're traveling through here, you really don't see the school," Crow said, explaining more signs should be posted designating the area as a school zone. "They come through so fast you'd think we're having a raceway out here. Now, here comes the (deputy) sheriff. He doesn't slow down either. It's rare when you see someone get a ticket. That's setting an example that it's OK."

Rezek said that he is "disappointed" in law enforcement and government officials.

"If I drove that fast through here, they would stop me in a heartbeat," he said.

Crossing guards need a traffic light that they can control to control the traffic, Rezek said. He has worked on getting a light and more signs for years.

"It's my goal to get that light out there, and if I don't, I know I gave it my best," Rezek said.

There's no formal process for public input to request more signs or lights, Brantley said, but the public is always welcome to call any one of the state's district offices.

"It's just a matter of letting our department know," he said.

Rezek said that he has been trying to reach state legislators regarding the problem of school zone speeding.

"People don't realize the importance of slowing down," Rezek said. "Safety should be the top of their list. What is getting five or 10 minutes ahead going to do for you?"

State Rep. Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro, introduced legislation "several years ago" that would have standardized school zone speed limits in the state.

"It's a very important subject matter," Buckner said, but added that she couldn't get "movement" behind the bill.

Israel said speeding in front of Swint Elementary, along with West Clayton Elementary, Smith Elementary, Kemp Elementary and Jonesboro High School are among the worst areas in the county.