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'America's Favorite Crossing Guard' Wears Many Hats...Literally

Lyn Woolford has been police chief – and crossing guard – of Ashland, Missouri since 2013. (Courtesy Photo).
Lyn Woolford has been police chief – and crossing guard – of Ashland, Missouri since 2013. (Courtesy Photo).

Lyn Woolford wears many hats as police chief of Ashland, Missouri. He estimates about 55 of them.

Woolford, who oversees the safety and well-being of 3,707 citizens in the Midwest town, directs traffic every morning outside the middle and high schools at a chaotic intersection. As part of his successful effort to tame congestion and frustration as people rush to get to school and work, he wears a goofy hat to break the tension and get their attention.

"Once I was selected as police chief I wanted to find something where I could introduce myself to the community and maybe solve a problem," Woolford said.

He saw success. He recently won "America's Favorite Crossing Guard," beating out the other 168 crossing guards nominated by students and parents across the country.

"I got out in the middle of the street and took control of the intersection and it worked! I mean it was just the answer for sure to this issue," he said.

Woolford loved interacting with students and parents in the mornings, not a common role for police chiefs.

For his first Halloween in the city, he bought a hat to celebrate the holiday.

"It was just an instant hit. You know, here's this police chief standing in the middle of the intersection wearing this goofy hat," he said.

Since then, Woolford has collected about 55 hats, many of them gifts from parents.

In the past five years, Woolford has collected 55 hats to wear as he directs traffic outside Ashland’s middle and high schools. (Courtesy Photo).
In the past five years, Woolford has collected 55 hats to wear as he directs traffic outside Ashland’s middle and high schools. (Courtesy Photo).

"I've got basically one for each week of the year with a few spares," he said, adding that "a lot of them are seasonal."

Woolford's job is neither trite nor unimportant.

Five teen pedestrians are killed each week, according to SafeKids.org, which cosponsored the "America's Favorite Crossing Guard" award with FedEx.

One in six middle schoolers and one in four high schoolers are "distracted" while walking, and what Safe Kids describes as "unsafe street crossing" was observed in 80 percent of students, according to the 2016 "Alarming Dangers in School Zones" report.

Three siblings were killed last October in Fort Wayne, Indiana after a driver struck them when she allegedly sped around the school bus they were exiting. Killed were twin 6-year-old brothers, Xzavier and Mason Ingle, and their 9-year-old sister Alivia Stahl. The driver, 24-year-old Alyssa Shepherd, pleaded not guilty to three counts of reckless homicide and awaits trial.

The accident was one of at least four that week in Mississippi, Florida, and Pennsylvania, which left two additional children dead and many more injured.

Last week, just a few days after a teenager suffered head injuries from being struck by a car who ignored a school bus's extended stop sign, the state legislature of Oklahoma introduced a bill which would fine motorists for passing stopped school buses.

Since Woolford has taken over directing traffic outside the Ashland Middle and High school, he says no accidents have taken place.

"Nobody's been hit by any vehicles since I've been there so I think we've been successful," he said.

And for that, along with his commitment to making students and parents smile on weekday mornings, the community nominated him to be named America's Favorite Crossing Guard by SafeKids Worldwide - an honor that comes with $10,000 for his school district to fund future road safety projects.

Though Woolford says he imagines his role will not last forever, as Ashland will likely construct a roundabout where the four-way intersection is, he thinks that there will always be a need to help pedestrian children safely cross the street.

"I don't know if the concern is ever going to go away," he said.

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US campuses are battlegrounds in free speech debate

Students hold up a photo of University of Southern California 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum in protest to her canceled commencement speech on the campus of University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, April 18, 2024.
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This week the University of Southern California canceled the graduation speech of its senior class valedictorian at a time when there is a growing debate over the limits of free speech on American college campuses.

USC’s Asna Tabas­sum, a Muslim biomedical engineer major, was selected from among 100 outstanding students to address the graduating class of 2024 this May. However, the school withdrew the invitation for her to speak at the graduation ceremony citing safety concerns.

Tabassum denounced the decision, which she attributed to her public support for Palestinian human rights. She said it is part of “a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice.”

Students carrying signs protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians on the campus of University of Southern California, April 18, 2024.
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The school maintains it is a safety issue, not about free speech. School officials say they received an alarming number of violent threats after selecting her as speaker.

USC is one of many American universities that have struggled with policies over free speech and campus protest since October’s Hamas terrorist attack on Israel and the continuing fighting in Gaza. After weeks or months of on-campus protests and rallies, schools have been taking more forceful action to punish protesters who administrators say have become disruptive.

On Thursday at Columbia University in New York, police arrested more than 100 students who had gathered on campus for pro-Palestinian protests. The school’s dean wrote that the protesters had been told several times that they were violating university policies and would be suspended. The students say they were exercising their free speech rights.

At Washington’s American University, protests in all campus buildings have been banned by the school’s president since January. Under the new policy, students may not hold rallies, engage in silent protests or place posters in any campus building.

Protests and safety

University students have a long history of engaging in political activism. From the Vietnam War to abortion rights, universities have played a key role in American political debates.

However, students now say that schools like AU with a long-standing protest culture are silencing protesters with new rules.

Arusa Islam, American University student body president-elect and current vice president, says the policies are preventing an open discussion about U.S. foreign policy.

“Indoor protesting was never a problem, it was never an issue before October 7th,” Islam said. “Students were allowed to put up posters in buildings and students were allowed to have a silent protest.”

“And now we don’t have that right anymore,” she added. “We have been silenced and it is affecting us greatly.”

American University’s president, Sylvia Burwell, says the school’s new policies are intended to ensure that protests do not disrupt university activity.

Burwell also referred to recent events on campus that “made Jewish students feel unsafe and unwelcome.” She added, antisemitism is abhorrent, wrong, and will not be tolerated at American University.

While administrators insist that they are making narrow restrictions in the interests of providing an education, critics say the policies have a far-reaching effect.

At Cornell University, where new rules took effect in January, Claire Ting, the executive vice president of the Cornell Student Assembly, said the policies have had an unsettling effect on campus.

“The campus climate at Cornell has been tense surrounding free speech in recent times,” Ting emailed VOA.

Ting said that both students and faculty feel the policy has had chilling effects on free expression.

“Students report facing arbitrary, escalating punishment for violating the policy, with the policy itself lacking clear outlines for the consequences of civil disobedience,” she added.

In its new policy Cornell warns students that disciplinary action may be taken if protests impede people or traffic, damage school property or interfere with the school’s operations in any way.

In its campus-wide notice explaining the new guidelines, the school wrote that the new policy would ensure that expressive activity is allowed but must remain nonviolent.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also known as FIRE, has tracked free speech issues on American campuses.

FIRE and College Pulse have produced an annual survey, since 2022, ranking colleges based on their policies and what students say about the free speech climate on campus.

This year the group reported that “alarming” numbers of students say they self-censor or “find their administrations unclear” on free speech issues.

“College campuses have always been places where students have been unafraid to express themselves and with the recent Gaza conflict after the 10/7 attacks, it’s been very heated on both sides of this issue,” said Zach Greenberg, the senior program officer of FIRE.

Harvard ranked last in this year’s survey. FIRE said the school punished some professors and researchers over what they had said or written, and students reported a poor climate for free speech on campus.

The controversy came to Congress late last year, when Harvard’s president testified over complaints of widespread antisemitism.

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“I don’t think you’d find many students on campus right now that would say we are the model for flourishing free speech and ideas exchange in the country,” said J. Sellers Hill, president of Harvard’s school newspaper The Harvard Crimson.

“But I think you’ve really seen that be acknowledged by administrators and it seems to be something they are dedicated to taking on.”

As the head of The Harvard Crimson, Hill manages the paper’s 350 editors and 90 reporters, who’ve covered, in detail, the ongoing free speech/protests controversy and the resignation of former President Claudine Gay following her testimony to Congress.

“I think no one would dispute Harvard has work to do and progress to make,” Hill said. “I think it’s a tough sell, for me, that Harvard is uniquely in its own league in terms of intolerance of speech. That doesn’t square with what I have seen on our college campus or on other college campuses around the country. I think Harvard is held to a higher standard.”

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