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Long Island

Street smarts: Crossing guards start the school year across Long Island

Shirley Cunningham, a 14-year veteran school crossing guard in Hempstead who is best known for the showmanship and style she displays while at work, shows no signs of slowing down. On Sept. 17, she talked about how much she enjoys her job at the corner of Fulton Avenue and Clinton Street. Credit: Barry Sloan

Most weekdays during the school year, more than 1,000 crossing guards take their posts on streets across Long Island. There are 398 crossing guards working for the Nassau County police and 457 working for Suffolk County police. Village and town police departments also employ crossing guards.

Like law enforcement officers, crossing guards are easily identified by their gear — bright lime-green reflective vests pinned with shiny shields, white gloves, handheld stop signs, and whistles to stop traffic and guide walkers.

As in the past, most are women. Ten men are currently among the crossing guards working for the Nassau County Police Department’s six precincts; there are 13 male crossing guards among Suffolk’s seven precincts.

Nassau’s crossing guards undergo 40 hours of training at the police academy in Massapequa Park, including CPR training, instruction in proper conduct and two days on the street with an experienced guard. Applicants in both counties have to pass a background check, including fingerprinting, an interview with an investigator, and medical and psychological examinations.

Guards work in two shifts — a few hours each morning to start the school day and another couple at the end. Posts are often assigned near the crossing guard’s home for an easy commute between shifts. The pay is decent, though not exorbitant, with hourly wages starting at $18 per hour in Nassau and rising to $25 at top pay. Full-time guards in Nassau work 20 hours, and part-timers up to 17 hours a week. Suffolk pays $13.27 an hour to start, topping out at $21.15 for a workweek of 17 1⁄2 to 30 hours.

There are drawbacks, of course. It can be a dangerous occupation. Since 2010 there have been 45 reported work-related injuries to Suffolk school crossing guards. In Nassau, about a half dozen guards are injured in traffic every year. And there’s being outdoors in all kinds of weather.

Nevertheless, most guards revel in their roles at the community crossroads, the majority averaging 20 years on the job. Some go beyond the role of street-wise guardian angel, to baby-sit a crying child until parents arrive or replace a pencil lost on the way to school. The seven featured here range from a recent recruit to beloved community members with decades of service. 

Alice Rogers, Clinton Avenue and Main Street, Bay Shore

“I’m the pied piper out here,” Alice Rogers said as she made one of her last crossings at the end of a busy day across the street from St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church of Bay Shore. Three teens from Bay Shore High School had shown up at the corner of Clinton Avenue and Main Street/Montauk Highway.

“Please wait for a second,” said Rogers, 72, raising her arms high as she entered the crosswalk. The teens were eager to get to the YMCA on the southwest corner, but they waited for Rogers’ signal. “Have a good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” Rogers said once they were safely on the sidewalk again.

Rogers has worked as a crossing guard for 36 of the 50 years she’s lived in Bay Shore. She’s a respected member of the force, having trained half a dozen new guards over the years.

Her main clientele attends St. Patrick School, a pre-K through eighth-grade building on the corner opposite the church.

“Montauk Highway’s a busy street, so it’s always a comfort to me to know that our students are in good hands,” said Roseann Petruccio, principal of St. Patrick School.

Rogers calls the younger ones “babe” or “my kids” and tries to help when a bad day ends at her intersection. “I wipe the tears and get down on my knees so they can see my face, and ask them what happened today.”

She said they show her their art projects and she hands out Matchbox cars for good conduct and replaces pencils lost on the way to test day from a cache of school supplies in her trunk. Rogers said she gets to know their families when she attends Mass at St. Patrick.

Joseph Plescia, Bayport Avenue and Montauk Highway, Bayport

Joseph Plescia, 70, of Bayport used to travel to Europe to meet his customers; now they come to him on their way to Bayport-Blue Point’s high school and middle school. Moonlighting — make that daylighting — as a crossing guard has given Plescia extra income as he scales down the international electronics business he ran full time from 1984 to 2008.

Crossing guard duty from 6:45 to 8:45 a.m. and 2 to 4 p.m. helps Plescia pay for his health insurance. It’s also introduced him to a new generation of youngsters at the traffic light at Bayport Avenue and Montauk Highway.

“I’ve seen them grow up from middle school to high school,” said Plescia, who’s been at the post for 16 years. He’s gotten to know some pretty well, like the family of five boys he led through his crosswalk over a stretch of 10 years.

Plescia combines an eye for detail with a businessman’s respect for the customer — even when the customer isn’t always right. “The older they get, the more fearless they are,” Plescia said. “There is an occasional young man or lady that just wants to proceed without waiting for me.” After a gentle talk, he said, “that’s the last time they go without my direction.”

He needs to be watchful. At a corner with three active businesses including a gas station, there have been “near misses.” One car almost hit Plescia while he was crossing a group of middle-schoolers.

“You almost have to have eyes in the back of your head,” Plescia said.

Karen Sanchez, Peninsula Boulevard and Franklin Avenue, Woodmere

Kids who step into Karen Sanchez’s crosswalk just outside Woodmere Middle School on Peninsula Boulevard had better pay attention.

“I tell them never to step out into the street until I tell you,” said Sanchez, 59, of Oceanside. They need to stop texting and take out at least one of their earbuds so they can hear her voice. Otherwise they risk being reported to the principal or parents, she said.

Sanchez needs to be tough but caring with SUVs and trucks whizzing by, a National Grid driveway to her left dispatching vehicles, and motorists that turn right on red without making a full stop.

Principal Al Bauer said that although Sanchez isn’t officially a member of the Woodmere staff, she’s “considered to be part of this very tight knit family.” And he said, “She keeps all safe on their journey across Peninsula Boulevard, which is not an easy task.”

Indeed, said Sanchez, “People run lights all the time.”

Hundreds of kids — most on foot, others on bicycles and skateboards — cross safely every day under the watchful eye of Sanchez, who grew up in Jamaica, Queens, and moved to Long Island in 1980.

She does it all without a handheld stop sign, preferring to direct foot and vehicle traffic with a pointed finger or a wave of her bare hand. (She wears the iconic white gloves in winter to protect her hands from the cold.)

“This way, girls,” Sanchez said, waving a trio of youngsters ahead, then sending them on their way with a cheerful, “Have a good day.”

Sanchez will stay beyond the 4 p.m. quitting time, sometimes waiting with a child whose parents have missed an after-school pickup. “I tell them, ‘You can stay here with me, I won’t leave you,’ ” Sanchez said. In turn, she expects obedience from those venturing into her crosswalk.

“I thank God every day that most of the kids do listen to me,” she said.

Shirley Cunningham, Fulton Avenue and Clinton Street, Hempstead

Four years after starring in YouTube videos that have racked up thousands of views, Hempstead Village Police Department’s celebrity crossing guard Shirley Cunningham started another school year dancing away.

Back in 2014, the Miami native told Newsday that she’s had a variety of jobs, and more than once had thought she might like the traffic job. “But the truth is that I needed a job bad when I got this one,” she said.

This September found Cunningham starting her 14th year on the job.

“I enjoy it,” said Cunningham, 64, of Hempstead, a crossing guard whose street choreography borders on performance art. She’s still marching, bouncing, windmilling her arms, blowing her whistle and shouting when necessary to keep traffic moving and schoolkids safe at Fulton Avenue and Clinton Street.

“What can I say?” Cunningham said, pausing — just for a second — to high-five a pedestrian before wading back into afternoon traffic. “I’m just gifted.”

Gerry Perricone, Ocean and Pittsburgh avenues, Massapequa

The first day of the 2018-19 school year was also the first day on the job for Gerry Perricone, 65. Perricone said he has no permanent post yet, but is a “floater” assigned a different location each day in the Seventh Precinct.

Perricone, who apprenticed at his father’s butcher shop in Elmont after graduating from Uniondale High School in 1971, had been happily retired from a 42-year career as a Stop & Shop meat cutter. Then one day he noticed a Nassau police officer working as a crossing guard near his Massapequa Park home. That bothered him.

“I thought, that’s not a good idea, he can’t leave that spot,” Perricone said.

A friend told Perricone about job openings for crossing guards, so he applied online with the Nassau police department. He was one of two men graduating in a class of six, and was assigned to the Seventh Precinct in Seaford.

Crossing guard training didn’t completely prepare Perricone for the first wave of youngsters crossing a residential street to Massapequa’s Raymond J. Lockhart Elementary School.

“They were streaming like water out of a faucet in groups of 15 and 20 at a time,” Perricone said about the crosswalk, which has no traffic signal. “There was so much traffic.”

But he’s quickly learned “not to panic, just check your surroundings, make sure everything is safe, step out in the street, make sure your arms are up, and they see you.”

Perricone said that when he’s working, he often thinks of his own young grandchildren. “I hope that when one of my grandchildren starts school there will be someone there with the determination I have as far as safety,” he said.

And the possibility of a cold winter doesn’t faze him, he said. “I worked in a refrigerator for 42 years, so I’m used to the cold.”

Susan D’Ambrosio, I.U. Willets Road and Meadow Drive, Albertson

What’s Susan D’Ambrosio’s advice to parents dropping their children off at school? The same advice she gives to children: Don’t dart into the crosswalk until traffic has stopped on both sides of the street.

“Adults should heed the crossing guard as well as the kids [do],” she said.

“We teach children how to cross and respect the rules of the road. We keep parents and children safe from crazy motorists,” said D’Ambrosio, 55, of Albertson, who this fall began her 16th year as a full-time guard, working 20 hours a week. “It’s a dangerous and rewarding job,” she said.

“The job is becoming more and more dangerous because of technology, cellphones and texting, that are distracting drivers,” D’Ambrosio said.

D’Ambrosio was raised in Albertson, graduating in 1980 from Herricks High School in New Hyde Park. She bought her parents’ Albertson home, where she still lives after having raised three daughters. In 2003 she quit her job at the New Hyde Park Inn to take a crossing guard post with Nassau’s Third Precinct in Williston Park. (She also works part time setting up house parties.)

When not helping children across I.U. Willets Road to Meadow Drive Elementary School, D’Ambrosio, the new president of Nassau County’s 398-member CSEA crossing guard unit, can often be found handling union matters.

Denee Wood, Candlewood Road and Owens Street, Brentwood

When Denee Wood began her career, Richard Nixon was in the White House and “The Godfather: Part II” was in theaters. Forty-four years later, Wood, one of Suffolk County’s longest-serving crossing guards, remains a fixture in her home community of Brentwood.

She has seen the community grow and become more diverse.

“Last week, somebody came by and said, ‘I remember when my grandson used to cross by you,’ ” said Wood, who is in her 70s. She was recognized for her lengthy service last fall by then-Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini.

Wood, who was raised in Massapequa and graduated from Massapequa High School, moved to Brentwood in 1963 after getting married. She has been crossing children for Brentwood’s South Middle School and Oak Park Elementary since 1990. Before that she worked the intersection a half-block away.

“Most of the children are very polite and respectful, which makes my job easier,” she said. She’s received thank-you notes, gifts of candy, perfume and writing pads from grateful parents. Some of her former charges have grown up to become law enforcement officers, including one NYPD anti-terrorism expert who recently stopped by to visit her at work.

She still gets up at 5:30 a.m. to be at her post by 7. She has no plans to retire.

“As long as I have my health and can do my job safely, I’m going to continue,” said Wood. “I don’t want to be a couch potato.”

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