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Ten-year-old Andrew Vargas, a fifth-grader at Atsugi Naval Air Facility, Japan's Shirley Lanham Elementary School, keeps a watchful eye on traffic as students head to school.
Ten-year-old Andrew Vargas, a fifth-grader at Atsugi Naval Air Facility, Japan's Shirley Lanham Elementary School, keeps a watchful eye on traffic as students head to school. (Brian Naranjo / Courtesy of U.S. Navy)

ATSUGI NAVAL AIR FACILITY, Japan — Every day, 50 youngsters help to guard the safety of their peers, keep order on the playground and hoist and lower the flag in a traditional ceremony.

The members of the Shirley Lanham Elementary safety patrol don’t just direct pupils and parents. They bring a level of professionalism to the job.

They stand at attention, march to and from the center crosswalk in a methodical progression and hold their stop signs high.

It’s just like the real thing.

“They’re all military trained. There’s guys that come out of boot camp that can’t even do this,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class David Palmer, a master-at-arms and the school Drug Abuse Resistance Education officer who coordinates the safety patrol. “I showed them how we do our post standing. They took the show from that point.”

The good military bearing creates a level of professionalism that helps the kids take their role seriously and keeps them motivated, Palmer said.

The patrol is voluntary; the students’ reward is getting treats on Fridays, provided by Palmer, and two parties a year.

They rotate through several jobs — road patrols at crosswalks to stop traffic for walkers, roving patrols on the “red top” playground, and raising and lowering the flag.

The youngsters carry citation books, just like real masters-at-arms. They record the name or license-plate number of anyone who breaks a rule and turn that information over to Palmer.

The goal, however, isn’t to teach them to be bullies. It’s to ensure safety.

“It’s not for the kids to be little police officers,” said base spokesman Brian Naranjo. “It’s about the kids taking responsibility for the safety of their classmates. They’re not just out holding signs up.”

The patrols take their responsibility seriously. They have had no problem ordering adults — politely, of course — to walk in the correct places.

The squads of fifth-graders are led by sixth-grade officers — a captain and two deputy lieutenants — who enforce discipline and keep order in the ranks.

“I try to teach them to use a chain of command,” Palmer said. “I didn’t think they’d take it so serious. They actually respect their chain of command.”

The responsibility of leading the patrols is tremendous.

“Sometimes they don’t listen to us,” said Alamer Macapagal, 11, Red Squad lieutenant, about her squad members. “Overall they do a good job.”

She notes that this year, Palmer’s introduction of military standards such as marching and pivoting gave the squads something to be proud of.

“He wants the safety patrol to look like they know what they’re doing,” said Red Squad captain Taylor Hale, 11.

Hale said he enjoys the job, “having control over something and being a leader,” he said. But it’s definitely hard work.

For next year’s leaders he offers some advice: “Get ready for some toughness. This is very hard. But it’s really fun.”

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