CLEARWATER — Dressed in a reflective orange vest and matching hat, Norm Runkles Jr. surveyed his domain outside Belleair Elementary School: whirling cars, the muffled hum of stereos behind rolled-up windows, and blacktop simmering in August heat.
The principal might rule the school, but beside the road Runkles is king.
Last week, with little time remaining before today’s start of the school year, Runkles unleashed a gaggle of about 15 crossing guards on unsuspecting drivers at the intersection of Lakeview Road and South Missouri Avenue for back-to-school training. For the seasoned guards, it was a refresher course on how to maintain a flow of traffic, position their signs and handle disobeying drivers.
“The new school year, the challenge is letting the public know that we’re here because they’ve been three months now — or two and a half months — of not having us out here,” Runkles said. “All the sudden they’re thrown this big curveball the first week of school.”
The guards took turns crossing the street and stopping traffic at the intersection and a crosswalk directly in front of Belleair Elementary, a test run for the beginning of school.
Guards underwent on-the-job training this year for the first time, stationed in front of the campus to simulate a school-day environment. Runkles, a training guard and retired firefighter EMT, said the change gives his guards an idea of what to expect.
Leading up to the first day of school, Clearwater had 56 guards, fewer than the 70 to 72 the police department recommends. Those remaining positions are expected to be filled within the first few weeks of the school year, Runkles said.
Rey Feldt, 80, has been a guard since 2002. After retiring from his job in construction sales, he needed something to do, he said. He likes working with children and being outside — even on a hot August day.
“This job is a good reason to get up at 5 a.m.,” Feldt said. “It gives me something to do, it gets me out of the house.”
Many of the city’s crossing guards are older, and with a lot of employees taking medical leave last year, Runkles said, it was difficult to cover shifts at times.
“They have certain things they have to take care of for their health and whatnot, so we have to manage that, keep a tight eye on it,” he said. “We work with them; they work with us.”
Before the start of the school year, guards underwent a training class and took a written examination — even those who are veterans on the job. Feldt said the safety review keeps him sharp, and the training informs him of any policy changes.
Walking in and out of traffic can be dangerous, and Clearwater guards know this all too well after one of there own was killed on the job in May 2014.
Guard Doug Carey, 70, was working at Belcher Road and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, near Skycrest Elementary School, when a driver ran a red light at the intersection and struck him.
Runkles said he talks about Carey’s death during training to emphasise safety.
“It’s important to know your signals; it’s important to be alert,” he said. “Not that Doug was ever doing anything wrong, but it’s just one of those things that can happen.”
The driver, Julious Johnson, is charged with vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of an accident. He is being held at the Pinellas County Jail, awaiting trial.
Carey, 70, was a retired Clearwater police officer, and worked as a crossing guard during the last few years of his life. Runkles said he and Carey bonded over their work as first responders, and used to talk about Runkles becoming a grandfather.
“I used to meet there at that intersection with those guys,” he said. “It was a tough intersection to work.”
Arthur Harriel, 67, is a fairly new crossing guard. He started in the spring, about one month before the last school year ended. He retired from his job with Pinellas County Parks and Preserve in November, and found he had too much free time. Now he has a great job, he said, and finds fulfillment helping keep children safe.
“Retirement didn’t work for me,” he said with a smile. “I needed to be out with people.”