“Flags Out!”: Heed the Call

NEW ULM – Do you know what to expect and how to react when you hear the call “Flags Out!”?

The call is often made by a very young traffic control “officer” in a bright-colored vest, at an intersection near a school or in a school parking lot, at the end of a school day.

The traffic officer’s age or size should not affect your decision to obey, police and school officials stress. The flag is a legal stop sign in Minnesota, as codified in state Statutes, says Chris Moellenhoff, an investigator with the New Ulm Police Department (NUPD). A driver who ignores the flag can get cited, similarly to running a stop sign.

Moellenhoff is the NUPD’s liaison person for school safety patrol programs. In particular, he focuses on programs at the private elementary schools (St. Paul’s Lutheran and St. Anthony Catholic). School Resource Officer Mike Brehmer, in his first year, has been assigned to work with the program at Washington.

At the beginning of each school year, Moellenhoff trains students who volunteer to serve on the program. He explains the need to dress appropriately for the state’s four seasons and extreme weather, shows and discusses a safety patrol training video and teaches students to operate the flag.

Drivers should know that a raised flag is similar to a yellow traffic light signal, Moellenhoff stresses. A student “caller” shouts out a “flags-up” alert, then counts for four seconds, before hollering a “flags out” warning. After a group of pedestrians has crossed the street, the caller calls the opposite command, “flags in,” and the safety patrol pairs leave to intersection and return to the sidewalk.

The main objective of the program, from NUPD’s perspective, is to keep the general public safe, says Moellenhoff. The end of the school day is a very busy time for both pedestrians and drivers, and traffic in school zones can get hectic. Safety patrols have a key role in managing traffic and diffusing tensions.

Rewards for participants include a ceremony at the end of the school year with appreciation certificates handed out by the mayor and the police chief. Students also have an opportunity to attend a summer camp; the American Legion and State Patrol each fund it for two students.

Twenty-plus years ago, St. Paul’s Lutheran School pioneered the program. The school sought to involve the students in keeping intersections safe, explains the current coordinator, Karen Grunwald.

“Through their use of the legal-stop signs, they help the control the traffic so students and adults can cross the street safely.”

“The members of the driving public need awareness of what the patrol is doing and what it means for them,” notes Grunwald. “I have always been concerned that people do not know what the patrol signals mean, and that the public really has to obey the rules.”

Participation is open to any student in grade four or higher, explains Grunwald.

“Normally about 30-35 students join each year; this year I have 39. Most students are in grades four through six, although some years a seventh or eighth-grader stays involved.”

After Moellenhoff conducts the indoor training, the students practice doing calls at an intersection, explains Grunwald.

“I put experienced patrol students with new fourth-grade patrol students for the first rotation of the school year. The teachers help the students by being an extra set of eyes at the corners every day.”

Grunwald notes the program’s popularity with the younger set.

“For fourth graders, I think it is the opportunity to finally be part of a school group. They seem to like the responsibility that they have and as a result they serve very faithfully. I hand out a schedule and they cover their posts whatever the weather.”

“There is always a lot of traffic at the end of the school day, so I don’t anticipate that we will ever end the need for a patrol,” says Grunwald. “I believe the program is successful since I have a large group of students who willingly sign up for the patrol, and then they faithfully cover their post.”

Ann Hawkes from St. Anthony Elementary is in charge of the safety patrol program at New Ulm Area Catholic Schools.

NUACS have had the program for about 15 years.

“It was once open to fifth and sixth-graders, but our numbers got too big, so it is now only an option for sixth graders,” says Hawkes. “This year I have 28 students. Usually an entire class, or all but a few, will sign up.”

The program was started because of traffic issues around the school, and also a way to make sure students walked across the street in the crosswalks, says Hawkes.

“I think we have met the school objectives. Our students are very aware of where they need to cross and how to cross safely. It gives the sixth graders a sense of responsibility. They take the job seriously, and are expected to be at their corner on time, and often in cold weather. It also makes them feel like they have a leadership role in the school.”

“The students participate for a few reasons,” continues Hawkes. “They do feel responsible and important while participating. It is a service to our school, and that is stressed in our system. They get a few extra minutes outside, so this is a plus on nice days. The biggest reason for many is they are able to go to a Twins game in the spring [a reward].

“[The program] isn’t perfect, kids forget, drivers forget, but I do think for the most part it works well and is a plus for our school and our sixth-graders. As far as I know, we will continue with the program. It is working well for us.”

Jessica Bouta, Washington Elementary School Counselor, is in her third year of organizing the program, which started before she joined the faculty. The school is in the fifth or sixth year of offering the program, believes Bouta.

The program was started at Washington to not only provide students two safe intersections to cross after school, but to also help students practice leadership skills, responsibility, teamwork, and provide an organization for students to participate in, says Bouta. Students are trained and expected to work as a team on their assigned patrol days. They also practice responsibility by keeping track of when they are scheduled to patrol and making sure they excuse themselves from class on time to get ready at the end of the day.

At the end of each year, students are asked to fill out an application to join the school patrol for the following year, explains Bouta.

“We typically have a total of 50-60 fifth and sixth grade students apply. This year we have 32 fifth-graders and 21 sixth-graders, for a total of 53 students.”

Typical reasons students choose to be a part of patrol are: for more leadership opportunities, to help create a safe environment for their peers, and to be involved in an organization at school, says Bouta. Many students have made new friends with someone they were not friends with before.

“… Students benefit from participating in the program in a number of ways,” sums up Bouta. “They are introduced to a leadership role in our building and they practice teamwork skills with their peers. Students are challenged to be responsible and know when they are assigned to patrol. They often make new friends with other students signed up to patrol.”

“The safety patrol program at our school accomplishes its goals,” sums up Bouta. “Since starting the program we have been able to provide two safe intersections for students to cross at the end of the school day. As of right now, our plan is to continue the school patrol program for years to come.”

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