Crossing guard shortage among hundreds of Austin school zones complaints revealed

Hundreds of dangerous school crossing complaints to the City of Austin reveal only a small portion of the problem

Children and parents crossing in front of Zilker Elementary School. (KXAN Photo)
Children and parents crossing in front of Zilker Elementary School. (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) -- Parents who have made complaints to the City of Austin regarding dangerous school crossings say the process to actually record a complaint is harder than it should be.

Whether your child rides in a car pool, takes a bus or walks to school, you want to make sure they get to-and-from school safely. But, many parents tell us there aren't enough safe options for kids to actually get to school. Biking or walking is out for many due to the growing numbers of drivers on the roads that some parents say make it too risky.

Through a public records request, KXAN learned Austin's "Safe Routes to School Program" received at least 450 complaints in the past three years—these are just the documented ones, outlining safety concerns the community wants addressed, before worst fears are realized. The Safe Routes to School Program works with seven school districts and private and charter schools within Austin. The goal is to eliminate barriers that prevent students from safely walking and biking to school, educate them on pedestrian and bicycle safety and provide crossing guards at crucial intersections.

Year Number of Complaints
2013 109
2014 160
2015 180

For mother of two Tish Elliott, each morning comes with a choice of whether to drive or walk to school. Typically, she says driving is just easier because of safety concerns.

"Every quadrant of this walk has its own special issue.” Elliott explained as she walked her kids to Barton Hills Elementary, a minefield of sorts for the mother working to determine the safest route and create new ones.

When KXAN reviewed open complaints funneled to the Safe Routes to School Program, we found four pointed to the intersection of Barton Springs Drive and Wilke Drive.

“This is really my biggest fear,” Elliott said, standing at the top of a hill at Wilke Drive that leads down to Barton Springs Drive. “That’s the worst part.”

A student walking up the hill on Wilke Drive. (KXAN Photo)
A student walking up the hill on Wilke Drive. (KXAN Photo)

The complaints called for two additional crosswalks, another crossing guard and more school zone signs. Elliott, who has been working to get additional safety measures for at least three years, was behind every complaint. Some of her complaints have made a difference. Most noticeably, a portion of Wilke Drive now marked with a white line for pedestrians. But, Elliot says pushing for change hasn’t been easy.

In her email correspondence with Austin’s Planning and Zoning Department, Elliott pointed out seven different directions for possible solutions, all of which she says ended up being dead ends. Elliott said Safe Walks to School never responded to her multiple emails and calls, and wrote, "311 can't help, in fact they put up more barriers than ideas over several calls to several people that I made and all suggestions I came up with were denied without so much as someone coming to the site."

“There’s sort of no one that just sort of goes 'okay, lets fix your problem,'” Elliott said. “There’s no sort of coordinated plan. And I don’t know how you do that when you have hundreds of neighborhoods, but some way to see the whole picture."

How ‘Safe Routes to School’ Works

Chad Crager is in charge of the Safe Routes to School program, and says they, as a city, should provide the solutions to remedy areas of concern, not the citizens, like Elliott experienced when she went through the process.

"I don't know what happened there,” Crager said. “I don't know the specifics, but that's something we want to take care of the concerns in one way or another."

Here’s what supposed to happen: those with concerns call 311 and complaints are then sent to the appropriate division, Safe Routes to School, being one of them.

"If we need to make the change, we will. If we are not making the change, we won't. But no matter what, we will let the citizen know,” Crager said.

Once that contact happens, the city can deem the complaints, comments and concerns“closed.” On average, Crager says the time between opening and closing a complaint takes four to eight weeks. The timeframe to conduct field investigations and analyze the data is typically closer to four weeks, while a full school zone study with the city’s transportation department can take up to eight weeks.

Districts under Safe Routes to School

  • Austin ISD
  • Del Valle ISD
  • Eanes ISD
  • Leander ISD
  • Manor ISD
  • Pflugerville ISD
  • Round Rock ISD

When KXAN analyzed complaints, comments and concerns made to the Safe Routes to School Program between November 2012 - November 2015, there were still 34 open complaints, with dates ranging as far back as April. Well beyond the normal timeframe.

“We have reviewed the list and all of the Customer Service Requests (CSR) have been closed this week. Our very dedicated staff respond immediately to requests, but can occasionally become backlogged in our administrative task of ‘closing out’ the CSRs, given their workload in the field. So even though the concern has been addressed, it may not be reflected in the system. We are working through a new process in our program to make sure that they are closed out in the system in a more timely manner,” Alexandria Bruton, Public Information Specialist with the Austin’s Public Works Department said.

"They put up more barriers than ideas"—Tish Elliott

The biggest obstacle is without a 311 call, there’s no guarantee areas of concern will be documented. This is something KXAN witnessed firsthand talking with at least one parent who said he complained to his child’s school for two years about a problem spot.

“We need to talk to schools and let them know to have the citizens call 311,” said Crager when asked about complaints falling through the cracks. "That allows us to start to review it and talk to that citizen because more than anything, citizens have concerns they want to be heard and as a city, we need to respond to those concerns. Whatever they may be.”

Other 311 complaints KXAN reviewed from across the city in various school districts detail minor accidents, children getting hit or close calls, “pedestrian anarchy,” the need for school zone flashers and additional crossing guards.

The Safe Routes to School program employs approximately 200 crossing guards, spread throughout the city. When asked if the city needs more crossing guards, Crager said, "We don't have any warranted locations that are not covered by a crossing guard.”  The City of Austin is in charge of staffing guards and deciding where to assign them. When requests come in, they send someone out to count the number of students crossing the street with and without adults. The city needs to observe at least 20 students crossing the street alone to add paid crossing guards.

Harmony School of Science

When the school bell rings, a swarm of students carrying bulky backpacks can be seen blanketing the area around Harmony School of Science. There, you’ll find Tiffany Molina, doing all she can to make sure the wave of footsteps get from one side of the street to the other without any issues.

Molina isn’t your typical crossing guard. She’s also the school’s assistant principal. When she came to the school, she didn’t realize her title would also include being a crossing guard. “I've worked in education for nine years, it's just something honestly that I thought was pre-established or already set or perhaps the city aided with, and so forth. I really didn't think about it."

Out of hundreds of complaints, across seven school districts, Harmony School of Science at 11800 Stonehollow Dr. in North Austin had the most open cases, cases where concerns had not yet been addressed. Complaints made to the Safe Routes to School program describe traffic gridlock, jaywalking, children nearly getting hit by cars, requests for school zone signs and flashers, crosswalks and a crossing guard.

"I'd rather it be me. At least I think I can move faster. I think they'll see me before they'll see a little one,” Molina said.

Our principal is out here doing crossing duty. It’s so dangerous for her to be out here. —Andrea Roberts, Harmony School of Science parent

Andrea Roberts has two kids who go to Harmony School of Science. She says the complaints don’t surprise her one bit. "Because we don't have any school signs or crossings, [drivers] are aggravated and sometimes you feel that with the way they drive. They're not watching out for our kids, they're not slowing down, they're being aggressive.”

A parent and child were hit crossing Stonehollow Drive in September. Police say the two were not in a crosswalk.

“They're doing everything they can. Our principal is out here doing crossing duty,” Roberts said. “It’s so dangerous for her to be out here.”

Because charter schools often aren’t usually located in neighborhoods, Crager says many students don’t walk or bike. When asked how the city prioritizes school safety concerns and complaints, he said, “We prioritize complaints of when they come in. We go out and we look at what the concerns are."

Top 5 Locations with Complaints Between November 2012 - November 2015

Location Number of Complaints
Austin Discovery School, 8509 FM 969 22 (closed)
Harmony School of Science, 11800 Stonehollow Dr. 7 (closed), 3 (open)
Zilker Elementary, 1900 Bluebonnet Ln. 8 (closed)
Rigdetop Elementary, Airport Boulevard & E. 51st St. 7 (closed)
Hill Elementary, 8601 Tallwood Drive 6 closed

For a full list of complaint locations click on this spreadsheet: School Crossing Report.

Dangers of a Growing City

Austin Independent School District’s Chief of Police Eric Mendez says his biggest concern isn’t pinpointing specific spots, but the problems that come with a growing city.

"With more traffic congestion, people find alternative ways to work. Some of those alternative ways may be neighborhoods, driving through neighborhoods they haven't driven through before,” Mendez said. To combat the dangers of more vehicular traffic, AISD has added day officers to specific elementary schools to help patrol the area due to an increase in vehicular traffic.

When asked if he feels Safe Routes to School is keeping up with increased demand that comes with population growth, he said,  “Yes, and that goes back to keeping and really staying in close coordination with the schools and with AISD. And because of that, we can’t just put guards in one location and walk away and assume it’s the same thing every year. It’s not.”

As the chief puts the emphasis on drivers to slow down, Crager says parents need to be more involved.

"With more traffic congestion, people find alternative ways to work."—AISD Chief of Police Eric Mendez

"We as a city cannot really lead the way to get kids safely to school. We can provide a safe way to do it, but we can't really make them or engage them to do it without the championship from not really the school, as much as the parents,” Crager said.

KXAN asked Council Member Sheri Gallo, whose district covers west and northwest Austin, if she feels the list of complaints logged with the city is a conclusive list of the school safety challenges communities are facing.

“I think it’s a partial list. So I think as we have actually gone out and talked to the schools and talked to the parents and talked to the faculty and principals, there are items that they feel like are safety issues that need to be addressed – that haven’t made any list,” Gallo said, referencing when she spoke with principals and PTA leaders at District 10 schools about their concerns.

Doss Elementary, where we met with Gallo, is just one example. At the time of our public records request, we found just one open complaint for the school. Something Gallo says does not accurately reflect the true weight of concerns in the area.

“The parents and the PTA and the principal have been trying to get some type of crossing protection here for years, and have not been successful," Gallo said.

“I think the calls that come in, our city does address and our departments do that very well, but it doesn't reflect the reality of the safety situation that is ongoing on a day-to-day basis,” Gallo said, advising people to call their Council representative in addition to 311. "There are some schools that we have talked to that need crossing guards.”

KXAN checked back with Harmony School of Science this week and learned its principal has reached out to the city for any updates, but has not heard back.

Though the city says it has enough crossing guards right now and 84 percent of crossing guards returned this school year from last year, hiring and retaining crossing guards has proven challenging at certain schools.

“Our goal is to hire crossing guards from the area of a school so that the crossing guard has a better understanding of the area, parents and school staff. Where we are unable to hire a permanent crossing guard at a warranted location, we provide a crossing guard substitute, train parent volunteers, or work with school staff,” Bruton explained, adding, “We would greatly appreciate any help in getting applications.”

When asked what he wants parents to know, Crager told us, "We care very much about getting kids safely to school and if there are parents that have concerns, I would ask them to call 311 and voice what your concerns are. We want to reach out to those concerned citizens and, you know, hear their concerns, look at what we need to do on the ground, and really adjust if need be and follow back up with citizens.”

In order to improve pedestrian safety around schools, several city council members are using their portion ($1.9 million) of the Quarter Cent Fund to fund projects that include additional sidewalks and pedestrian hybrid beacons. Twenty-five percent of Capital Metro's annual revenue goes to fund the Quarter Cent Fund, which is used to pay for transportation projects across the city.

If you have a complaint you want addressed, the city maintains the best options is to call 311. Find your district's Quarter Cent Fund safety improvements here:

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