Friday, March 21, 2014

Look both ways before you cross: Newark's groundbreaking school safety patrols

Back a few years ago, our visit to Newark's Military Park revealed that America's first school safety patrol was established in New Jersey's largest city in May 1916. According to a commemorative plaque placed by the Schoolmen's Club, Newark Schools Attendance Supervisor Charles MacCall and Officer Felix Dunn of the city's police department recommended that the board of education start the patrol to make sure that children learned to cross the street safely on their way to and from school.

What sounds like a pretty obvious concept now -- why wouldn't a kid know to wait to cross the street until cars passed or came to a stop for them -- wasn't at the time. Automobiles were a fairly recent phenomenon, and as traffic increased, the simple act of crossing the street became fraught with potential injury. Guard stationed at intersections and crosswalks would make sure kids passed safely while drumming the "look both ways, then cross" mantra into their brains. The Newark program brought it one step further by enlisting students as guards, perhaps thinking that kids would be more likely to listen to their peers.

In researching the program, I found that the school safety patrol concept, like many good ideas, has been claimed by many parents. It took a while for me to find a non-Schoolmen's reference that placed citing the birth of Newark's program before others. Some branches of the American Automobile Association claim that AAA originated the idea in 1920, while cities like St. Paul, Minnesota proudly state that their safety programs took root in the early 1920s.

To be fair, AAA once recognized that safety patrols seem to have sprung up in many areas at around the same time. A 1940 New York Times article said that the organization was attempting "to find and to honor the far-sighted leaders who pioneered the movement." By then, 300,000 children had donned the familiar safety patrol belts to help to keep their peers safe from oncoming traffic.

Even the originators of the Newark movement seem to be in question. A 1949 obituary states that Eugene Sheridan, not MacCall, was the public schools attendance bureau director who came up with the idea and worked with Dunn to implement it. I haven't been able to clear up the discrepancy, but I discovered that Sheridan was lauded by the AAA as one of several pioneers at a massive safety patrol parade in Washington, DC in 1941. By the time he retired, almost 3400 Newark youngsters were serving as guards, and no fatal accidents had occurred at any of the patrolled intersections or crosswalks since the start of the program.

Dunn headed the Newark School Safety Patrol from its formation in 1917 until his retirement in 1930, and while he did so much to ensure childrens' safety on the road, his family was touched by a car accident. In 1933, he was driving with his wife from Fort Lauderdale to Newark when a tire on their car blew out and the car overturned. Mrs. Dunn died from her resulting injuries, while Mr. Dunn suffered only minor injuries.

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