AUGUSTA — Distracted drivers on Western Avenue have made it too dangerous for students to cross on their way to Lincoln Elementary School.

Augusta’s last remaining crossing guard position, last filled by Reginald Gagne, has been eliminated by school officials concerned about the safety of the students and worker.

Administrators said only a few students had been crossing Western Avenue at its intersection with Florence and Cushman streets on their way to Lincoln Elementary. In addition, they said, Gagne had nearly been hit by vehicles multiple times already this school year, prompting the safety concern.

So they removed Gagne, from the job and altered a bus run so students who crossed at that location are now picked up and dropped off at a bus stop on Florence Street, and driven to and from school.

“Given that people weren’t stopping, even for him when he’s out there with a sign, and traffic is going up Western Avenue at fairly high rates of speed, we didn’t feel it was safe for him or for students,” said Kathy Casparius, Augusta schools’ business director. “Whether we’ve got a crossing guard there or not, it’s not safe.”

She said school officials have talked with Augusta police about the issue in recent years and the department has responded with an increased presence. That helped, Casparius said, but only for as long as police were there.

“The minute they leave, commuters just speed right up again,” she said.

Police Chief Jared Mills said that section of Western Avenue annually has more speeding tickets written to motorists on it than anywhere else in the city.

It is a frequent target of federal and state grant-funded speed enforcement details where a number of officers are stationed nearby and traffic is clocked by radar for a few hours of intense enforcement. In a four-hour period, said Sgt. Christian Behr, some speed details on Western Avenue have seen officers write between 40-60 speeding tickets.

Mills thus shares school officials’ concerns about safety at the location, in part due to motorists speeding and driving while distracted because they’re texting while driving.

“It’s a four-lane road, going down a hill, where the speed limit is only 25, which is a good speed if that’s what everybody went,” he said. “The reality is, they don’t.”

Mills, who has a child who attends Lincoln Elementary, said he’s completely on board with the school district’s decision to remove the crossing guard and pick up students who previously crossed there by bus to keep them off the avenue. He said he’s talked to Gagne a few times and Gagne — who could not be reached for comment for this story — told him he’s had close calls where he almost was hit by passing vehicles, and that motorists don’t pay attention.

Neither Mills nor Casparius knew if any of the close calls at the crossing involved children, though Mills said he doubted that was the case because Gagne was so careful in his duties and always walked out into the road by himself first to stop traffic before signaling for children to follow.

“With Reggie, it was always him (going out into the street) first,” Mills said. “He’s a great guy and is very passionate about the kids and their safety.”

Casparius said there were fewer than six students who used the crossing.

Lincoln Principal Heather Gauthier said parents of students who used the crossing were notified of the change and that a new bus stop was put in place for those students on Florence Street. She said she could not say whether all the students who used to walk to school via the crossing were now taking the bus, due to privacy concerns, but said all were offered the opportunity to take the bus.

Gagne, who has been a crossing guard in Augusta for years, previously working as a crossing guard near St. Michael School, was the only crossing guard remaining in Augusta. The school department has sought a crossing guard to help Farrington Elementary School students cross Route 17 near the school, but has been unable to find anyone who wants the job, Casparius said, so there is no crossing guard at that site.

The job pays $11.03 an hour, for one hour a day split up into a half-hour in the morning and a half hour in the afternoon.

Until 2014 Augusta had 10 crossing guards, but all those positions were eliminated by school officials, in large part because so few students walk to school and use the crossings.

Following an outcry from parents concerned about the safety of children walking to and from school, later that year the Board of Education voted to restore two of the cut positions — on Western Avenue by Lincoln and Route 17 by Farrington.

Mills said an increase in people distracted because they are texting while driving is a growing trend and one of the biggest safety issues today, for both pedestrian and motorist safety.

He said pedestrian safety is a huge concern in Augusta. Mills said it’s a two-part problem, of both motorists not yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks, and pedestrians themselves sometimes not crossing properly.

Pedestrians, even in a crosswalk, he said, shouldn’t just walk out into the street without first checking for traffic and, importantly if traffic is coming, showing they intend to cross the street in a crosswalk.

“You can’t just bolt out into traffic, you have to show intent to cross,” Mills said.

He said the Western Avenue intersection near the closed Pizza Hut has, in recent years, had improvements meant to improve pedestrian safety at the site. Those changed include flashing yellow lights on both sides of the avenue that pedestrians can turn on by pushing a button mounted on light poles on each side.

Mills said other than the occasional dedicated speed details, patrol officers often are too busy responding to calls throughout the city to sit and monitor traffic for extensive periods of time.

He said picking up students who previously walked across Western Avenue by bus is probably for the best because police can’t be at the intersection all the time.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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