Young students cross Diamond Street in North Philadelphia on their way to William Dick Elementary School (Yvonne Latty/Logan Center)

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On a cold Monday morning at the end of January, cars whipped down both lanes of Diamond Street as students waited to cross the four-way intersection to get to school at William Dick Elementary. Many of the children were without an adult. 

Most waited for the light to change, and dutifully crossed at the crosswalk, though some of the older students did not. One girl, about 8 years old, ran across during a break in traffic and then waited for a young friend to follow. 

One boy dashed across with a group, arrived at the opposite sidewalk, and declared triumphantly, “No one got hit!”

No speed bumps or other traffic-calming measures were visible on the busy North Philly thoroughfare. And the crossing guard was nowhere to be found. 

“I have not seen her in a couple weeks,” William Dick Principal Amy Williams told Billy Penn.

If the crossing guard is absent, Williams tries to have a school staff member stand outside, she said. But the timing doesn’t always work. William Dick’s school building opens around 8 a.m. and the school day starts at 9. Last Monday, the principal arrived around 8:30 a.m. By the time she sent out a staffer, dozens of children had already crossed.

Official hours for crossing guards in Philadelphia, who are currently managed via the Police Department, are 7 to 9 a.m. in the morning and 2 to 4 p.m. in the afternoon. 

Jacobs Hasheen, a neighbor who was walking a child to school, said even when there is a guard at William Dick, they sometimes don’t show up until almost 9 a.m. “There’s no safe zone for the kids,” he said.

The K-8 school was completely without a crossing guard for most of last year, after the previous guard was reassigned to Fredrick Douglass Mastery Charter in spring 2022, according to Principal Williams. 

A new guard was reportedly assigned in December — and then stopped showing up.

“I saw her for two weeks. And then I don’t see her no more,” said Ruth Hayes, a resident whose grandson graduated from William Dick in 2014.

Hayes watches students cross the street each morning from her home on the corner of Diamond, a few blocks down from the school building on 24th Street. She fears for their safety daily. Cars zoom by at speeds much higher than the 15-mph school zone limit, and make frequent turns into the intersections.

With no crossing guard, it’s an accident waiting to happen, Hayes said. “I don’t think it’s safe for them to just send them little babies out by themselves.”

Citywide, school zones in Philadelphia saw 54 car crashes in 2021, per the latest data from PennDOT. Over the past decade, the area around 24th and Diamond saw 11 crashes, resulting in at least six injuries.

William Dick School building engineer Malisa Jones said she tries to remind students to be careful, and helps whenever she can. 

“This is a really dangerous area,” Jones said, “for just kids to be crossing the street by themselves.” 

Students leaving the William Dick School in North Philadelphia on Jan. 30, 2023, no crossing guard in sight (Eden MacDougall for Billy Penn)

Philadelphia’s School Crossing Guard Program is in the process of being transferred to the Streets Department so PPD can “focus on core law enforcement responsibilities,” according to Crystal Jacobs, the department’s executive director of public safety programs. Guards are assigned based on need, determined by the number of students crossing, type of intersection, lane count, and speed limit, Jacobs said. 

Like municipal government at large, the program has been struggling with staffing: there were over 400 crossing guard vacancies last May, according to an Inquirer report. The program page indicates applications are currently open, but the city’s jobs website lists no open positions. 

If they’re going to be absent on a given day, crossing guards are supposed to notify their school and police district, per Jacobs. Some districts send officers to check if guards are at their posts, but it’s done at their discretion.

After Billy Penn informed the city about William Dick’s missing guard last week, a new one was assigned. “We should see her starting this Monday,” Jacobs wrote in an email.

William Dick parent Desiree Moye said that before disappearing, the school’s most recent crossing guard assignee said they were quitting because of students’ behavior.

“These kids, when they get out of school, they want to rip and run, run in front of cars and the crossing guard telling them not to do this, do that, they’re cussing them out, so what are they supposed to do?” Moye said.

Williams, the school principal, disagreed with that assessment. She and assistant principal Paul Trommelen stand outside every day during dismissal, she said, and the crossing guard never mentioned having issues with students.

Last Monday, after the last bell rang at 3:39 p.m., William Dick students departed in groups, walking home with neighbors and friends. 

In their excitement to go home, some of the students didn’t pay attention to where they were walking. Two young boys almost got hit by a car while crossing at a corner. Thankfully, the driver saw them, and hit the brakes just in time.

This story is part of a yearlong reporting project with Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting on educational disparities within the Philadelphia School District.