Mary Ann Tozzi helps New Paltz Middle School students cross South Manheim Boulevard after school last Thursday. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

It has been two years since parents of New Paltz Middle School students have been lobbying for a crossing guard to help shepherd their young across the busy and dangerous intersection of Main Street and South Manheim Boulevard, as well as the crosswalk from the middle school to North Manheim Boulevard. The previous Village Board approved the hiring and financing for a crossing guard, even going so far as to hire a veteran crossing guard, only to have that resolution quashed by the newly elected Village Board, whose members said that they did not have the authority nor the resources to do the background checks necessary to hire a person dealing with school-aged children. The buck was passed many times among the village, the town, the school district and the New Paltz Police Department — who, to their credit, offered to do the background check and serve as the emergency contact number if the crossing guard could not be present.

Mary Ann Tozzi — a local mother, New Paltz High School graduate and former New Paltz Central School District employee, as well as a former candidate for the school board, decided to take matters into her own hands. This past week, Tozzi has shown up with a large pole and bright orange flag to walk groups of middle school students safely across the street, but she was threatened with arrest on Friday afternoon.

“I was sitting with my friend having a cup of coffee, waiting for school to get out so I could make sure the kids got across the street safely, when [New Paltz Police Department] Officer [Pat] Koch showed up,” said Tozzi. “He was nice, just doing his job, but said that the school district contacted the police because they received a ‘complaint’ about me.” Tozzi went on to explain that the officer informed her that she could not act as an “agent of the school.” “I told him that I was not acting as an ‘agent of the school,’ but was simply a concerned individual with a large orange flag and 15 minutes to kill.”

To that end, the officer informed her that she could be arrested for “obstructing traffic” and serve 20 days in jail, be charged with a fine and possibly have a restraining order against her from the school.

“I’ve made it this far without seeing the back of a police car, and I want to keep it that way,” said Tozzi, who backed down Friday but then regretted it later. “I’ve got nothing against the police; they’re just doing their job, and the officer was friendly. But I do have a problem with the school district not having a crossing guard!”

The threat of arrest and jail time went viral, and a protest was set up via Facebook and other social networking sites to support Tozzi this past Monday. She said that people told her that she should have “stood her ground.”

As Tozzi mulled this over, a police officer knocked on her door this past Sunday and said that she should “contact chief [Joe] Snyder” Monday morning, because her name was being “tossed around as a possible crossing guard,” since she already was on file at the school district with fingerprints and a background check from her years as a “lunch lady.”

Chief Snyder said that the “issue here is not that Ms. Tozzi was threatened to be arrested, but the intent first was to ascertain who this person was when we received an inquiry if someone was hired [as a crossing guard], and we knew nothing of this,” he said. “We learned that Ms. Tozzi was volunteering on her own…Officer Koch advised her that she cannot just stop traffic with or without a flag on her own.” The chief said that “stepping out into traffic and obstructing traffic flow is a violation of disorderly conduct.”

He said that he advised the officer to have Tozzi call him because “we do not want to take action against her, but offer her training and equipment to do the job correctly.” He added that he looked “forward to embracing her intent and work with her, as this is exactly what we have been trying to do is get volunteers, and the Police Department will take care of overseeing this, as no one appears to have money to pay for this service. Ms. Tozzi has already worked for the school district, so she already has had her fingerprints taken and clearance to be around schoolchildren, which will speed up this process.”

“That’s my point exactly!” said Tozzi this past Monday morning. “If all they need is a person on file, then they have like 15 hall monitors and school aides that are already on the payroll that could go out there twice a day for 20 minutes and walk our kids across the street!”

“My kids don’t go to the Police Department every day; they go to school every day! This is not the Police Department’s responsibility,” she said Monday as she walked schoolchildren back and forth across the intersection with her orange flag and more than a half-dozen supporters. Parents honked and thanked her, kids thanked her.

Tracy Arnold, a parent of a child at the middle school, came out to support Tozzi’s efforts and to encourage the school board to “get a crossing guard. These kids are smaller than the cars. The cars don’t stop, and often don’t see them. It’s terrifying, and I think Mary Ann should be thanked for doing this. It’s a long time coming, and we’re just grateful that no child has been seriously injured. Just look at this traffic!”

Terence Ward, a former candidate for the Ulster County Legislature and local blogger and reporter, said that he had learned of Tozzi’s “occupied crossing-guard” status and applauded her. “I really like the fact that she has a commonsense solution to a problem that proves things do not need to be overly complicated or bureaucratic, but that it’s what we choose to do instead of solving problems ourselves. We have so many levels of government in New Paltz that often our leaders are more interested in getting quotes in the local papers than actually getting anything done. What’s great about [Tozzi] is that she’s just doing it. Despite any risks or criticism, she’s getting kids across the street safely, while our various governments and agencies hem and haw and attempt to put the responsibility on each other. Come on! This is a ‘cut the crap and get it done’ type of action that we need more of.”

Superintendent Maria Rice, like the chief, said that she hoped Ms Tozzi would “get the proper training and equipment” and “continue to volunteer for the job” and added that she hopes other “volunteers will follow Ms Tozzi’s example.”

“First the school district wants me arrested, then they want to hire me,” said Tozzi, who added that she did not “want the job; I just want someone to do it. And it doesn’t have to cost taxpayers money, but it could save the life of a child. This is ridiculous…Politics and hypocrisy disgust me. All I want is a crossing guard out there, before a kid gets killed.”

On Tuesday, Chief Snyder told Superintendent Rice that he had contacted Tozzi and learned that she was not interested in taking the position, but that her “intent was to demonstrate how this position can work.”

Like Tozzi, the chief did not want to see this demonstration be the end to the possibility of having a crossing guard at the middle school. “I hope this does not go unnoticed nor put to rest just on the fact that she is not interested in volunteering. Again, our agency will oversee this program, offer training and work with the Village Board to supply proper equipment for [a crossing guard]. I look forward to working with [the school and village boards] to see this happen.” ++