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Published in Print: November 10, 2004, as Election Day Security Runs Smoothly Overall in Schools

Election Day Security Runs Smoothly Overall in Schools

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School administrators across the country expressed relief last week after Election Day voting at school polling sites went relatively smoothly despite record-high turnouts.

However, there were some isolated problems.

Bomb threats called in to the 700-student Longview Elementary School in Phoenix briefly disrupted voting, and prompted the school’s evacuation.

Students were sent by bus to another school, and election officials moved the polling site to a nearby Baptist church.

But for the most part, parking and traffic—not security problems—proved the biggest challenges for schools in the first presidential election since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Some officials and parents have been worried about potential security risks to school-based voting sites. ("School Polling Sites Raise Safety Concerns," Oct. 13, 2004.)

Of the country’s roughly 200,000 polling stations, 45 percent to 60 percent are on K-12 campuses, according to Douglas Lewis, the executive director of the Houston-based Election Center, a non- partisan group of government employees who work in elections.

In Florida’s 377,000-student Miami-Dade County district, for example, more than 100 schools served as polling sites. Members of the 213-officer Miami-Dade district police force met with parent-teacher groups and community organizations before Election Day to inform them of increased traffic and possible parking woes in their neighborhoods.

“That was our biggest concern,” said Edward Torrens, the police information officer of the Miami-Dade School Police Department. “But it went well because we did a lot of planning beforehand. We also had several police officers per site to enhance the calm.”

In the 38,000-student Minneapolis school system, administrators took extra safety precautions in the 29 school polling sites by restricting voter access to school restrooms and phones in the buildings, said Jane E. Ellis, the principal of the 625-student Marcey Open School. Schools were in session that day.

“There are definitely more precautions on access since 2000,” Ms. Ellis said. “But the biggest challenge was the numbers [of voters]. About 79 percent of voters in Minneapolis turned out. That’s a lot of people.”

‘Better to Be Safe’

At the 500-student Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., parents dropped off their children as voters drove or walked up to the suburban Washington school, passing many “Bush-Cheney” and “Kerry-Edwards” signs. At 7:30 a.m., the line outside the polling center in the school gymnasium stood more than 80 people deep.

Inside the gym, two double doors leading into the heart of the school were cordoned off with yellow caution tape and carried a “No Exit” sign. Through the doors’ glass panes, one could see students walking in the hallways.

A police presence at MacArthur Elementary was not obvious, though eight or nine plainclothes police officers were patrolling school grounds, said PreeAnn Johnson, MacArthur’s assistant principal. She stood on the school’s front steps, directing voters to the polling site around the corner, while welcoming students.

The biggest challenge on Election Day was parking, Ms. Johnson said. With only 10 spots saved for voters in the staff parking lot, teachers vied with voters for parking on nearby streets.

Still, in addition to the extra police presence, school administrators took other safety precautions. They canceled after-school activities, locked all outside doors, and stationed staff members at key entrance and exit points.

MacArthur Elementary is perhaps more security-minded than most schools. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, which included the assault on the Pentagon some five miles away, the school installed a security camera and a communications system at the front door. A visitor must ring a bell and talk on an intercom before being buzzed into the building.

“Better to be safe than sorry,” Ms. Johnson said.

School Voting

Emulating their parents, students in some districts also cast ballots for president. About 7,000 students in Minneapolis, for example, participated in a mock election organized by an affiliate of Kids Voting USA, a Tempe, Ariz.-based nonpartisan citizenship program. The Minneapolis students who voted favored Sen. John Kerry over President Bush by a 5-to-1 ratio.

In the 62,200-student Columbus, Ohio, public schools, the 7,357 student voters favored Mr. Kerry over Mr. Bush almost 4-to-1.

Some schools better predicted the winner. Of 120 votes cast at the 900-student Big Walnut High School in Sunbury, Ohio, 68 percent went to Mr. Bush, compared with 29 percent for Mr. Kerry.

Vol. 24, Issue 11, Pages 6-7

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