CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Clarksville Police continue to focus on enforcement of traffic laws in school zones and around school buses.
It only takes a few moments of conversation with school crossing guards to understand the depth of the problem. Three guards -- Raphaela Velasquez, Vanna Gibson and Barbie Hemmingsen -- recently visited Mayor Joe Pitts to appeal for help in getting drivers to behave in school zones.
Their message to drivers can be summed up as: “Slow down. Pay attention. Get off your phone. This is about the safety of our children!”
“I help 30 children a day cross Cunningham Lane at Minglewood Elementary, and drivers simply won’t slow down or pay attention,” Hemmingsen said. “On one recent Monday morning, a police officer wrote 16 tickets in my area. One was for a driver going 43 mph in a 20 mph school zone.”
Perhaps no one knows more about the dangers of bad driving in school zones than Velasquez, who was hit by an impaired driver at 7:20 a.m. April 2, 2018, while directing traffic along Rossview Road at the entrance to Rossview High. She was knocked head over heels and suffered a severe concussion and lacerations to her scalp that required dozens of stitches.
“It was the time of the morning to get the buses back out on the road so they could pick up another group of students,” Velasquez said. “So I had to step into the roadway with my stop sign. The driver ran through the flashing yellow lights, and hit me while my stop sign was in my hand.”
Gibson, who was working on the other end of the school zone near Rossview Elementary, remembers running to Velasquez’ aid. “The SRO (school resource officer) was there quickly, and then Clarksville Police made the arrest while the EMT’s tended to Raphaela,” Gibson said. “It was a scary scene.”
The driver, Ryan M. Smith, 22, of Clarksville, recently entered a guilty plea to vehicular assault, a Class D felony, in Montgomery County Circuit Court and is awaiting sentencing. He could receive a sentence of up to four years in prison.
It took Velasquez five months to recover from the concussion, but she returned to her job when school resumed in Fall 2018. Undaunted, she still works the same stretch of road where she was hit.
Yet the dangers remain.
“I’ve seen wrecks this year caused by people who are texting,” Velasquez said. “I just pray that people will think about the children. They need to obey the signs, obey the laws, because if they hit someone or cause a wreck, they will pay the price.”
The crossing guards say they operate in a constant state of fear -- for the students they are trying to help and for their own safety.
“We see some really crazy things out there directing school traffic,” Gibson said. “A lot of drivers are on the phone, some are even watching videos. One woman had a whole makeup kit on the seat beside her, complete with lights and a mirror, and she was doing her makeup while making her way through the congested traffic.”
Hemmingsen said the crossing guards sometimes endure taunts and negative gestures from angry drivers who are in a hurry. “That can upset you, because many times these are the parents of the children at the school. You ask yourself, why don’t they care about the safety of the kids?” she said.
But the crossing guards also see support from many of the motorists they interact with day-to-day. “We’ll often get a thumbs up from a driver, even after they’ve been held up for a few minutes,” Hemmingsen said. “And the little kids you see every day are sweet, and they make you feel good.”
Crossing guards are employees of the Clarksville Police Department, which provides training, equipment and supervision, but guards are not authorized to write tickets or make arrests.
So far this school year, which began Aug. 7, Clarksville Police have processed more than 150 citations for school zone and school bus-related violations, ranging from speeding to improper passing of a bus.
Clarksville Police say they will continue vigorous patrols in school zones to ensure motorists are following the rules of the road in school zones and along bus routes.
School zones are marked with lights or traffic signs, so drivers need to be alert, use their turn signals, obey speed limits and avoid distractions. Motorists also must pay attention to school crossing guards or officers directing traffic in the school zones. Drivers must not block crosswalks and must be prepared to stop and yield to children in crosswalks.
All school zones have a 20 mph speed limit unless otherwise posted. Speeding in a school zone can result in a fine of $269 and points on your license. It also could result in reckless driving charges.
Motorists also should be careful when traveling near school buses and allow more stopping distance, which provides more time to react when a bus’s yellow lights start flashing. School bus violations carry a fine of $250 to $1,000. The typical fine is $464 and points on your license.
Clarksville Crossing Guards, from left, Vanna Gibson, Raphaela Velasquez and Barbie Hemmingsen recently visited City Hall to appeal for community help in getting drivers to behave in school zones.