By JESSE WINTER
For The Westfield Leader
WESTFIELD — Crossing guards are in serious short supply in Westfield and the town is experiencing the consequences. The burden is falling especially hard on the police, who are being tasked with filling the vacant posts, and residents who depend on the guards to ensure their children’s safety as they walk to and from the numerous schools in Westfield.
In a report delivered during Tuesday’s council meeting, Westfield Police Chief Christopher Battiloro said the shortage of guards is requiring him to use staff to fill vacant crossing-guard posts, and implored the governing body to reevaluate the current situation in town for the sake of public safety.
“We’ve lost another number of crossing guards, which is really putting us in a dire situation,” said Chief Battiloro.
As of Tuesday evening, the chief said that after 22 completed days of school, he was required to assign police officers to cover crossing-guard posts on 69 occasions, and he anticipates the trend will continue. After consulting his traffic safety sergeant, he anticipated committing six officers to vacant posts for the Wednesday morning hours, six in the afternoon; four officers during the Thursday morning hours, seven in the afternoon; and then on Friday being required to commit five police officers in the morning hours, with eight officers filling in the crossing-guard posts in the afternoon.
The police chief said those numbers are before any unexpected sick days taken by guards already committed to the week’s posts, with crossing guards having a high sick-day rate, the chief noted.
During his report, Chief Battiloro spoke about the high volume of calls Westfield experiences on an annual basis, and the vulnerable position his department is put in when he has to continuously commit a significant number of his officers to crossing-guard posts.
“At three o’clock in the afternoon, to see no police resources available is concerning. If an emergency were to happen, those officers are committed to school traffic posts, and we’re not going to abandon those posts. Because we said they were necessary and we’ve committed resources to cover them. It creates a very serious dilemma here,” said Chief Battiloro. “I see the numbers going forward, as many as eight on Friday afternoon,” said the chief. “We can simply not sustain that for any duration of time.”
All City Management Services (ACMS) is the company that was hired to oversee the staffing of the town’s crossing-guard posts, but like many other businesses and industries throughout the country, crossing guards are in short supply and ACMS has been unable to fill the vacancies.
Town Administrator James Gildea explained that the crossing-guard shortage and the issues of hiring and retaining guards is a problem experienced not only by Westfield, but communities throughout the country, many of which are served by ACMS.
“We’re actually fortunate to have ACMS,” said Mr. Gildea, reflecting on the widespread crossing-guard shortage in Westfield and beyond. The town administrator said in addition to the challenge of finding new hires, retaining existing crossing guards has become increasingly difficult.
And compared to other municipalities and the benefits offered, “we [Westfield] have a much better package than neighboring communities, higher pay, better opportunities for the guards here, and yet it is still hard to recruit and retain,” explained Mr. Gildea.
Discussion of the crossing-guard shortage was taken up during the public portion of the meeting by Phillip Mirabelli of Boynton Avenue.
Mr. Mirabelli addressed the shortage and how it is impacting his family, especially his 10-year-old daughter, Marielle, who is a fifth grader at Jefferson Elementary School.
“A couple things I’m concerned about, when you talk about allocations throughout the town, and what areas should be monitored with a crossing guard, and what should not,” said Mr. Mirabelli. “And when I think of Sycamore [Street] and Central [Avenue], I think it should be a primary spot, as opposed to a secondary spot.”
Mr. Mirabelli spoke to the difference in neighborhoods, saying that in those immediately surrounding schools, drivers tend to know school is in session, and that there are kids traveling on foot. He compared those neighborhoods to streets like Central Avenue, where many of the drivers are coming from areas outside the community, and are unaware of Westfield’s children walking to and from school.
Regarding the thousands of drivers that use Central Avenue daily, “I promise you most of those people have no idea there’s a school a block away. All they care about is getting to work. No clue. When they see a yellow light, they speed up to make it,” remarked Mr. Mirabelli.
Mr. Mirabelli read a letter from his daughter, addressed to Mayor Shelley Brindle.
“I’m writing to you about the intersection of Central Avenue and Sycamore [Street],’’ the letter read. “I think that this topic is very important. Me and my friends walk to school almost every day, sorta, by ourselves. We walk to school from the intersection, and then our parents cross us,” said Marielle Mirabelli’s letter. “The intersection is very dangerous, that is why we meet our parents there. But if there was a crossing guard, we would walk by ourselves. I know that a lot of the kids at my school have to cross there as well, so I’m not alone,” said Marielle. “I also think we need a crossing guard there because I know lots of little kids that will deal with the same issue when they are my age. And once I go to Edison, I will still have to cross there,” the letter read. “This is why I’m hoping, one day soon, we’ll have a crossing guard there to keep us safe.”
After the public portion of the meeting, Mayor Brindle took time to respond to public comments and respond to the crossing-guard shortage articulated by Chief Battiloro and Mr. Gildea.
“I want to make sure that these residents know they’ve been heard,” said the mayor. “Clearly, with challenges comes opportunity. I think it is time to reevaluate the entire crossing-guard program.”
In more council news, the governing body continued to hear opposition to the Edison Fields project after the town unveiled a scaled-down version of the plan back in September. Although the scope was reduced, many residents, especially those living in and around the Edison Intermediate School area, have continued to voice opposition to the project.
A major point of contention surfacing is the environmental impact and the sustainability of turf-based, artificial fields.
Tuesday’s meeting saw opposition not only from residents surrounding Edison School, but from Westfielders around town who are questioning if turf fields belong in Westfield.
“I’m here to talk about Edison fields, which are not in my backyard,” said Janette Spiezio of Cedar Terrace. “I’m all about sustainability, and zero waste, which includes being against plastic,” Ms. Spiezio said. “Plastic pollutes and it never goes away.”
Ms. Spiezio also warned against the potentially deleterious effects of the plastics found in turf.
“To me, it’s not a partisan issue, not a political issue, it’s just one of public health,” said Ms. Spiezio. “While we might not have all the answers as to exactly what health hazards plastics cause, I just think we need to be on the right end of this one and listen to the reports that are out there and be as careful as we can with the health of our children,” she said.
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