Santa Ana parents are demanding that city officials reverse their decision to remove school crossing guards without warning, saying the move is putting children's lives in danger.
“I was just flabbergasted” on the first day of school, said Monique Cadwell, who has two children at Santiago Elementary School. "As parents we feel let down."
About 25 crossing guards were removed near Santa Ana schools as of the start of the school year last Tuesday, according to police officials.
Given Santa Ana’s history as a hotspot for pedestrian fatalities, “you’d think they’d be more concerned about the safety” of children, said Jim Pantone, an attorney whose son attends Santiago.
It “really defies logic,” he added.
Right next to Santiago is a busy intersection where children walk to and from school as cars, sometimes with impatient drivers, wait in traffic.
The intersection, Baker Ave. and Santa Clara St., carries significant traffic from Bristol St. to the I-5 freeway and always had a crossing guard in recent years, parents say. But there hasn't been one there since the start of school.
The yellow crosswalk lines have also been largely scraped off, making them much more difficult to see from a driver's standpoint:
Parents said the situation puts children in danger of being hit by passing cars.
"Why wait until there's a body" before fixing it? asked Kevin Sepulveda, a father at the school, which has over 1,200 students.
Parents say they've been calling up a high-ranking police official involved in the removal decision, Commander Ruben Ibarra, to demand that the Santiago guard be restored.
Several also plan on speaking at the Santa Ana Unified School District board meeting tonight.
A police spokesman, Cpl. Anthony Bertagna, said that given the response, the department is now planning to re-assess the crossing guard removal at Santiago.
“Obviously if there’s concern and there was a traffic crossing guard there before, then obviously we need to take a re-assessment look at this,” said Bertagna.
“When it comes to schools and getting kids to and from school, that’s a priority for us,” he said of student safety.
It's unclear how long it will take the police department to decide whether to restore the guard.
The decision to remove guards was based on an assessment that uses state and local guidelines, Bertagna said, and was not related to any budget cuts.
“There’s already a budget for that. It’s just a matter of trying to do it efficiently and effectively while providing the kids a safe means to get to and from school," Bertagna said.
He didn’t have information on which other schools had crossing guards removed.
Voice of OC reporters visited the Baker-Santa Clara intersection as school let out on Friday, and noticed a long line of cars waiting in traffic on Santa Clara and turning south onto Baker at the intersection.
By the time they reached the intersection, some drivers were apparently impatient and turned into a crosswalk as students prepared to cross.
Young children, often unaccompanied by adults, walked through the intersection – sometimes going through narrow spaces between cars that were idling in the crosswalk.
In one case, a woman pushing a stroller was crossing but wasn’t able to fit between two cars that were waiting back-to-back in the crosswalk.
The rear car then backed up into the intersection to give her enough space to continue.
In another case, a car turned into a crosswalk near a woman and young girl who were crossing.
"It's scary for the kids to cross the street – it's even scary for the adults," said Marilyn Bernaudo-Delgado, who has a 10 year-old at the school.
"Without the painted crosswalk the cars just don't stop."
School district officials say the responsibility for crossing guards lies with the city, and that city officials didn’t inform them of the removals ahead of time.
“We were not aware of the changes at all one way or another,” said Dr. Rick Miller, superintendent of Santa Ana Unified School District.
Police officials, meanwhile, say Santa Ana Unified and Garden Grove Unified, part of which also lies in Santa Ana, were sent letters with the locations that would be staffed by crossing guards.
But Bertagna said he didn't know if it mentioned that guards would be removed.
The guards are provided under a city contract overseen by the police department.
If anyone wants crossing guards restored or added, Bertagna said they should contact Commander Ibarra, who leads the department's traffic division. His email is email@example.com and his office phone is (714) 245-8210.
Several parents who spoke with Voice of OC last week were clearly upset about the situation.
“This should be a no-brainer,” said mother Jenna Beghtol.
"At the very least it is a phenomenally poor reflection of values," said Pantone.
When the superintendent visited more than 20 schools on the first day of class Tuesday, he said, about a quarter of the schools he went to reported losing crossing guards. The schools included Santiago Elementary and Harvey Elementary.
“I think that everybody is aware that Santa Ana, the city, and Santa Ana school district is one of the most impacted, densely populated places anywhere. And as such, obviously when we release kids we want them to have safe passage on the sidewalks and the roadways,” said Miller.
“Crossing guards are pretty important and we would hope that the city certainly maintains safety with all of that.”
Asked if the city should have contacted school district officials about the removals ahead of time, Miller said: "I don’t want to place blame, that seems counterproductive."
Miller added that he was very appreciative that Police Chief Carlos Rojas called him to discuss the situation on Friday, three days after school started.
“I’m not in any way feeling bad about the city, in fact I feel good about the city” that they’re taking action to address concerns, Miller said.
California does not have statewide standards or guidelines for minimum crossing guard staffing, said Giorgos Kazanis, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.
However, government officials and agencies can be sued in civil court for injuries or deaths that are linked to negligence on their part.
Parents at Santiago said they’ve raised the issue with school administrators, as well as Ibarra at the police department, but have yet to receive a commitment to return the guard.
"I just want my crossing guard back," said Nancy Ulrich, who often takes her grandson Gabriel to school.
The Santa Ana Unified board is next scheduled to meet tonight at 6 p.m. at the district’s headquarters (1601 East Chestnut Ave., Santa Ana).
City Council members can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. They are next scheduled to meet next Tuesday, on Sept. 16 at 5:45 p.m. at City Hall (22 Civic Center Plaza, Santa Ana).
Members of the public have the right to speak for up to three minutes each at both meetings.
Thy Vo contributed reporting.