When Catherine Dahlke’s kids were young, she noticed some drivers in her Yakima neighborhood near McKinley Elementary School weren’t always driving responsibly.
But after being hired by the school roughly a decade ago, she saw a way to help keep neighborhood kids safe: She became the school’s head crossing guard.
In that role — her official title is “safety patrol supervisor” — Dahlke oversees McKinley’s safety patrol, a cadre of fourth and fifth-graders who, along with a few adults, monitor crosswalks before and after school around the campus on South 13th Avenue just south of Tieton Drive. Armed with brightly colored flags and other safety equipment, the volunteers are responsible for stopping traffic so pedestrians can safely cross busy roads.
While rewarding, the job can be tough for kids. Students who volunteer are required to work during nonschool hours and must be diligent if they’re going to keep their classmates safe. They also need to keep their grades up and stay out of trouble. Running afoul of those requirements can mean a temporary suspension from duty.
Dahlke, who also helps students with their schoolwork as a paraprofessional at McKinley, said discount passes for movies, trips to Skateland and candy or ice cream on some days encourage students to sign up for patrol. Since they mostly work in pairs, many sign up with friends so they can spend time together, she said.
Dahlke, 59, is a Yakima native. Before working at McKinley — where her two daughters, now adults, attended elementary school — Dahlke worked at Yakima’s YMCA for 13 years and at Sears for four years. After working in retail, Dahlke — who studied early childhood education at Yakima Valley College — said she wanted to get into the education field to help others.
“I wanted to get back in with kids instead of selling things to people,” she said. “I wanted to help people.”
The Yakima Herald-Republic asked Dahlke about the job, traffic and how being a crossing guard for eight years has influenced her.
What inspired you to take on the responsibility of being the safety patrol supervisor?
This is my neighborhood school. I live only a couple blocks away and I’ve lived there for 34 years. They’re my neighborhood kids, and I wanted to make sure that they were safe. People often don’t drive safely. So I like being out there to make sure the drivers are stopping and making sure the kids are safe. Plus, a few kids that I know have recently been hit by cars — not kids at McKinley — but it makes me want to make sure my neighborhood kids are safe.
What are some of your day-to-day duties as the safety patrol supervisor?
At about 8 a.m. the students and I go out and stand on several corners around the school, depending on how many kids we have that day. From there, I supervise. We use walkie-talkies if the children are a couple blocks away. We use them if we need to contact each other about safety, or I’ll use them to call the kids in if we have any problems.
There are spots around the school where an adult needs to supervise, such as the intersection of West Tieton Drive and South 13th Avenue, so if someone needs to use that crosswalk we’ll send an adult out there. We just work with the kids, on the corners that are closest to school and a couple corners that are farther away. They patrol until about 8:45 a.m., and then school starts. And then after school we go out at about 3:15 p.m. on regular days and stay out until about 3:30 p.m. on those same corners.
What situations require a student to contact you via walkie-talkie?
They’ll report kids bothering them — kids from the school or otherwise — who are maybe harassing them from cars, or if cars run through a stop sign they can tell me about that. Of if a car didn’t yield for their flag. They can write down a description of the car or write down the license plate number on note pads we give them. I’d guess that happens once every three months or so. We’ll use them to communicate with each other if there’s a lockdown or lockout at school and we need to bring them in. They also use them regularly to let me know when they’re headed inside or outside, so I know.
When a student reports a driver, what happens next?
If I give the school a license plate number, McKinley’s school resource officer would probably investigate it the next day or the day after to see if they could find that person.
How has doing this job influenced the way you drive?
I’m way more attentive to my blind spots, I slow down when I’m in a place I know I should be slowing down, and pay a lot of attention to kids and other pedestrians.
What would you tell people who drive by you every day?
Don’t text or talk on your cellphones. I still see that every day, and even more often now that it’s warmer. Go the speed limit, and slow down to 20 mph when you’re in school zones.
Always watch out for pedestrians. If you’re coming up to a crosswalk with a pedestrian and there’s a car in the lane next to you, try and see if they realize and are going to stop too. And if you come to a crosswalk, you should slow down, even if you don’t think anyone is crossing, and make sure no one is crossing. Do your best driving you can. It’s a serious, big engine they’re driving — cars can kill people.
What’s your next step?
Maybe try to train someone else or get some more people, try to get some volunteers. Adult volunteers would be nice. Parents, anybody from the school. They see it every day, they get frustrated with other drivers themselves and they should come and help volunteer. But if I keep my health and keep busy with my work at the school, I’ll continue to be the safety patrol supervisor at McKinley.