St. Paul school patrols will celebrate 80th anniversary

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The familiar orange flags of the school patrols will soon be on view in a brilliant mass of fluttering color as some 3,000 St. Paul students gather on May 9 to march in the 80th annual school police patrol parade and picnic.
Thirty-six patrols from St. Anthony Park Elementary School will be part of the event. They will have practiced their marching for a couple of weeks, perfecting their lock step and chant: “We’re from SAPSA, super, super SAPSA. Everywhere we go, people want to know. . . .”

Students will gather at Fourth and Sibley streets and march to Fifth and Washington streets, accompanied by marching bands from area high schools and St. Paul police officers. Then they will board school buses and head for Como Park to enjoy a day of picnic treats, raffles, games and the chance to check out Como’s new amusement park.

St. Paul is famous for having one of the first school patrols in the world, thanks to the efforts of Sister Carmella Hanngi more than 80 years ago.

There were very few cars on the road when young Caroline Hanngi walked to the Cathedral School of St. Paul, where she was a student. Before 1900, she and other children would keep an eye out for horse-drawn carriages before crossing Summit Avenue.

But by the time Caroline grew up and became Sister Carmella Hanngi, principal of the Cathedral School that she once attended, things had changed dramatically.

By 1920 the presence of cars had increased on St. Paul’s streets. When it came to traffic safety, the learning curve was steep. Cars were newfangled and unfamiliar for most everyone learning to drive. The rules of the road were just being written. The now ubiquitous traffic light was invented in the early 1920s after its inventor witnessed a terrible traffic accident.

At that same time, communities around the country wondered how they could protect schoolchildren from traffic danger as they walked to school.

Sister Carmella was familiar with the idea of teaching older children to provide safe street crossings for younger children. She realized that older children would need not only the respect of the younger children they would shepherd across streets, but they would also need to be respected and obeyed by adult motorists.

She turned to the St. Paul Police Department to lend an air of authority to the school patrol program. In 1921, St. Paul Police Lieutenant Frank Hetznecker swore in 17 boys and girls, kitted out in Sam Browne belts stitched together by a harness maker in Lowertown, and carrying yellow hand signs that read STOP– SCHOOL POLICE. Best of all, school police, as they were called then, were issued badges designed to look like St. Paul police badges.

The first school police crossing took place on February 21, 1921, at Summit and Kellogg near the Cathedral School. Within a year, nearly 90 other private and public schools in St. Paul organized school police patrols. Traffic accidents involving children immediately decreased.

To celebrate, the proud pioneers of the first school police patrols marched alongside police units through downtown St. Paul in the spring of 1921. To show their appreciation, the citizens of St. Paul organized a picnic to go with the parade in 1926. Sister Carmella’s school police patrol model spread throughout Minnesota. It has been adopted nationally and in more than 20 countries around the world.

Continuing that proud tradition this year are 37 St. Anthony Park school patrols. They provide safe crossing at seven corners around the school building and along Como Avenue. In addition, the kindergarten patrols walk the half-day kindergartners between school and home in the middle of the day.

Patrols no longer carry yellow signs or wear the classy Sam Browne belts, but they are easily recognized in their bright and practical orange traffic vests, carrying orange plastic flags. They still wear badges that look like a 1920s police badge.

Sixth graders Siri Berg-Moberg and Nathan Blake are the two captains who oversee the smooth operation of patrol duty 184 days of the school year. Siri attended a summer camp training program last August. The Legionville School Safety Patrol Training Center has been run by the Minnesota American Legion near Brainerd since 1948. Siri helped train the new sixth-grade patrols last fall.

Every day, captains Berg-Moberg and Blake walk along the routes that children take to school, checking on patrols and “walkers,” as they are sometimes called. They pass out “incentive tickets” to patrols doing an especially good job. These tickets are worth $1 at area businesses like Speedy Market and Ginkgo’s.

According to Siri, “The hardest part is keeping the younger kids in line. We give warnings, but usually it’s enough to tell them not to do something.”

Nathan said that this year a couple of cars went through the intersection when they should have stopped for the patrol flags. Patrols wrote down the license plate numbers of the cars and turned them in to their supervisor, Tim Olmsted. He forwarded them to the St. Paul Police, who issued tickets.

Olmsted, a second-grade teacher at St. Anthony Park and supervisor of the patrol program for the past several years, is clearly proud of the patrols. “They are out there in all weather,” he said, “the heat, the rain, the days below zero. They don’t complain.”

Last year, the school received the prestigious Winterhalter Award for doing an outstanding job with school patrol. The school got a plaque, and the St. Anthony Park patrols got to march at the front of the parade with the chief of police. The previous year, St. Anthony Park received a second-place trophy for excellent marching. Olmsted is hoping that this year St. Anthony Park’s school patrol will again be recognized for its award-worthy efforts.

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