In an earlier post about school buses, the subject of School Safety Patrols – commonly known as “Patrols” or “Patrollers” – came up. Given that Patrols were a fixture of my mid/late 20th Century youth as well as their clear connection to automobile culture, it was interesting to me that this topic had not been addressed by another CC article.
So let’s cross that potential topic off the list. We were all kids once, and most of us went to one manner of school or another, so there’s a good chance that there are school safety patrols existing somewhere in our pasts. If not that, then I will note that my research for this article has turned up an amazing number of photographs and videos that contain all sorts of good car-spotting; and even a few trucks and buses and some petroliana. There’s something here for everyone.
It’s probably good to get a few basic facts straight before going any farther. First, Patrols — and I’m going to go with that term because it’s the one that was used in all of the schools of my youth. We never called them “Patrollers” as that just sounds kind of creepy — are still very much a thing in schools around the U.S.. For reasons that we’ll touch upon later, the program is perhaps a bit smaller than at times in the past, but one can still access a wealth of information from their local AAA club about how to start and operate a Patrol program in their school or district. Many schools do.
I’ll also note that for the most part, I am considering School Safety Patrols in the U.S. – they apparently exist in “over 30 other countries”. Further, I’m mostly discussing those Patrol programs sponsored and encouraged by AAA as a component of their school safety program.
AAA’s school safety programs are historically a part of the organization’s broad interest in pedestrian safety.
AAA’s initiatives around all manner of automobile-related issues really deserve a fully separate article as there are so many of these programs that go well beyond coming to fix your flat tire or jump-start cars. For example, in the 1940s and 50s, AAA regularly made news announcing winners in its annual contest to see which cities’ drivers ran down and killed the fewest pedestrians each year. It’s unclear as to when this contest (that’s what they called it) ceased, but clear records of its existence vanish by the mid-1950s.
As far as school transportation safety programs are concerned, AAA launched its “School’s Open – Drive Carefully” program in 1946. That initiative, which continues to this day, featured both Patrols…
…and school buses.
I distinctly recall a number of years where these school bus-shaped bumper stickers were distributed to my class each fall. Naturally, I was a huge fan of these and probably still have a few in boxes deep in the archives.
Organizations other than AAA have sponsored student-staffed school safety programs. The “TPA” – or Travelers Protection Association (apparently no apostrophe required because it’s an association more for than of “travelers”) — is one. TPA is the sponsor of the at one time ubiquitous “Watch That Child” campaign.
TPA also sponsored Patrols, as the photo above shows Patrols in Missouri wearing TPA’s distinctive radioactivity-like logo in the early 1960s.
They were really into the crossing flags in Cape Girardeau.
Various city police departments have been Patrol sponsors as well. In fact, St. Paul, MN lays claim to having organized one of the first safety patrol programs in the nation in 1920. The St. Paul “School Police” were created by the city’s police department and in its initial year recruited 750 public and parochial school students.
These students were initially charged with actually directing traffic. It seems that once the St. Paul police turned oversight of the program to the nuns in the local parochial school system, literal policing duties faded and student safety patrols were instead focused on guarding pedestrians. This is how the Patrol program works to this day.
This Jam Handy film shows how Patrols operated in 1951 in (what turns out to be) Huntington Woods, Michigan. As most readers interested in automotive history likely know, Jam Handy Productions produced thousands of educational and corporate films, many like this one, for Chevrolet. It was frequently the case that the films used locations local to Detroit. A bit of street sign sleuthing (note the location at Borgman and Wyoming at 11:30) shows that this was filmed in Huntington Woods and actually on location at what is Burton Elementary school (built in 1925, and still in use as a K-5 school). Perhaps Jimmy and Billy’s grandchildren now walk the corners that Jimmy patrolled so well.
One of the things that impresses me when watching the Jam Handy/Chevrolet film about patrols is the rigor and seriousness with which these adolescent boys – and later, girls – went about their duties. You can see the same sort of thing in historic photos of Patrols such as the one above (those boys look quite nautical…in Nebraska) and in other pictures I’ve found for this article.
Even though it’s the modern style for children to smile a lot more in photos than was the case in the oh-so-serious past, you can still tell that there’s something special about the responsibility that these students carry.
To get a better sense of just what motivates a 5th grader (that’s the traditional age when students enter into the Patrol program) to want to be a Patrol, I recently spoke to the only friend I have who was a Patrol. Her tenure was in my childhood suburb (well, one of them) outside of Washington, DC. She confirms that what attracted her to the Patrols was the opportunity to take responsibility and to contribute tangibly to a positive environment in her school. Somehow, all of that was also wrapped up, literally, in the Patrol uniform…that is the traditional orange sash (which is now yellow). In fact, back in her/my day the uniform and badging changed as one went from “Patrol in training” to full Patrol. She reports that there was a plain white belt that trainees wore for a year before graduating to the official bright orange belt.
These belts, by the way are known as “Sam Browne Belts”. This is something that you probably already know if you’ve spent time in any branch of the military where such a belt is part of the uniform. They are also seemingly part of the uniform for some state police officers (e.g., Massachusetts). It is said that one of the contributions that the St. Paul police made to that “first” Patrol effort in 1920 was to make the Sam Browne Belt part of the School Safety Patrol uniform.
As is often the case with uniforms, there are routinized ways of taking care of these items. In the case of Patrol belts, there’s apparently some ritual around properly folding them. My friend reports that one of the bummers related to the white canvas patrol-in-training belt was that it was difficult to fold. Folding the belts still seems to be a challenge for modern Patrols.
Fortunately, now we have YouTube and parents who are willing to learn how to fold their kids’ belts.
Another evolutionary carryover from actual highway police officers to student safety patrols is badging.
I have to say that it was the badge that truly attracted my attention as a child. While like my friend, I too may have been attracted by the opportunity to take (and be recognized for taking) responsibility in my community, I really was after the chance to wear the badge…and the orange belt.
A quick tour around the Web indicates that Patrol badges came in many varieties indicating a range of ranks among the Patrols. I recall that there was some kind of annual awards/badging ceremony in most schools where Patrols were advanced to the next level of the program. This is something that in my schools in both MD and NC typically occurred as a full school assembly where we all got to had to watch the ceremony. I’m sure that just added to the Patrols’ sense of honor and responsibility. And for those of us – like me – who were eager to do something that would allow us to stand out among our peers, the whole procedure was enthralling.
Badges are still a Patrol thing, although nowadays the shape of the badge is less evocative of police than Starfleet…or perhaps the accordance of special honors at Mazda headquarters (Zoom Zoom). If I were a kid today, I might like that even more.
In addition to crossing duties, Patrols have also traditionally operated as “bus patrols” who ride the bus and then “assist the driver” in helping students safely cross the street at bus stops.
Nowadays, with relatively few children walking to school, patrols have taken a role in some districts of helping students board buses at the beginning and end of the school day.
In 2021, AAA celebrated the 100th anniversary of its School Safety Patrol program. This was a big deal for AAA and occasioned a number of promotional articles reviewing the history of the program, its supposed benefits (measured by “reduced” student pedestrian deaths…although I’m a bit skeptical of the scientific rigor of these supposed studies), and significantly, notation of the many famous individuals who were Patrols in their youth. You can find these lists online, but even a brief review is pretty impressive. Three US Presidents (Carter, Clinton, and Biden) and five US Supreme Court justices ranging from Warren Burger to Stephen Breyer to Clarence Thomas were AAA Patrols. It impresses me that Thomas (born in 1948 in Georgia) served as a Patrol during a time when he and his parents would have been prohibited from joining the AAA auto club. During Jim Crow, AAA clubs barred African Americans as members and therefore contributed to the rise of the famous Green Book Travel guides. Oh, and on a separate automobile-related note, Lee Iacocca was a Patrol in the 1930s in Pennsylvania.
So my friend the former Patrol was definitely on to something about the responsibility. It seems that there’s definitely a strand of – as she put it – wanting to contribute to the environment around her in school. If I had to identify a common theme among those varied famous folks who were Patrols, a desire to contribute responsibly to society might be it. My friend isn’t on the Supreme Court, likely to become President, or even an astronaut (Mary Ellen Weber, Bedford, OH and Patrol somewhere around 1974), but she’s definitely and notably in a field that connects to the public good/service.
OK, high minded values aside, I have to note that one other feature of Patrols – fitting given the fact that if nothing else they were elementary and Jr. High student activities/clubs – is that they featured field trips. My friend noted an annual Patrol trip to the county fair featuring free hot dogs, fries and Cokes. I going to guess that there might have been some amount of parading done there.
It might have been even better to be a Patrol not based in the DC area as for years AAA hosted an annual national meeting for Patrols in Washington.
The big DC Patrol parades seem to have peaked around the time of the Patrols’ 50th Anniversary in 1952.
For its 50th anniversary, the Patrol program even managed to score issuance of a commemorative U.S. postage stamp (replete with what I believe are fantasy automobiles). The 100th anniversary in 2021 did not occasion a stamp or I would guess much of the civic activity associated with the 50th anniversary. As stated, the Patrol program is still thriving and in some districts – such as my old one in Maryland, where the district website has a whole page devoted to the Patrol program — the program still functions much as it did when I was a child and for half a century before. In Montgomery County, there are apparently still “Bus Patrols” who ride the bus and hop out with a flag to signal traffic just like they did when I was a kid. There are also Patrols at intersections to guide the “walkers”. Nevertheless, I suspect that the Montgomery County experience is becoming increasingly anomalous. First, in many school districts, the number of walkers has steadily declined as more and more elementary and middle school kids are picked up from school to attend various after-school enrichment programs (I’m looking at you, Kumon and after-school STEM/Coding/Robotics centers). Also, there’s the not-unrelated fact that many children nowadays need an extra nudge to engage in any “real world” activities that go beyond what they can do in the virtual space. Anything that requires the extra parental nudge is always going to be a reach across the broad swath of the population.
Finally, go back and watch that Chevrolet/Jam Handy film again. Try to get past the stilted dialog, wardrobe, and the black & whiteness of the whole thing and think about what those kids are saying at about the 11 minute mark.
[Jimmy Adams the Exemplary Patrol] Look Billy, would you mind waiting for my “Go” signal before you cross the street?
[Billy Jones the Universal Bad Example] Naaaaah. I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do!
[Jimmy] That’s just what you DO need!
And then pretty much the rest of the film is about Jimmy (Gallant) demonstrating to Billy (Goofus), and Billy eventually coming around to the fact that of course Jimmy the Patrol was right. Avoid Authority — Authority is basically Jimmy’s middle name — and nearly get killed (or worse…this linked video from Louisiana, by the way, is totally excellent for early 1970s car-spotting!). The moral of the story is that this is what the person who rejects helpful Authority can expect.
That sets up a significant difference between our past and our present. There really isn’t a more perfect demonstration of how sociocultural sensibilities have changed in the past 50 years than that interchange. For better or for worse. Something to think about, and to discuss.
Still, I believe in the future, and by definition, the future is in the children. As long as there seem to be kids who come for the badge (and the hot dogs/fries/Coke) but leave with the responsibility, there’s hope that someone at ground-zero is looking after and finding some way to influence the safety of their fellow human pedestrian.
In the words of the great Jimmy Adams, “Walk! Don’t run!”