School Climate & Safety

School Polling Sites Raise Safety Concerns

By Rhea R. Borja — October 12, 2004 5 min read
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Security concerns have led a small but increasing number of school districts and counties to move polling sites off school campuses.

Seven of the 12 schools in Ohio’s 6,800-student Gahanna-Jefferson district, for example, will no longer double as polling places after educators and parents successfully petitioned the local board of elections earlier this year to make the change.

In Tippecanoe County, Ind., an election official recently said that she aims to switch some of the county’s 81 election sites from schools to “less vulnerable” alternative sites.

And in Florida, the Pinellas County elections board supervisor moved polling places originally slated for 11 public schools to local churches and community centers after hearing from concerned parents and educators.

With larger-than-usual numbers of voters expected to turn out for the first presidential election since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, some educators, county officials, and legislators are rethinking whether they can ensure student safety when hundreds of outsiders converge on school campuses. There are about 192,000 election precincts nationwide, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, but the commission does not have estimates on how many have their polling places in schools.

“Why put children at risk?” said Tony Piehowicz, the principal of the 485-student High Point Elementary School in Gahanna, Ohio. He has been lobbying for years to move polling sites out of schools. “It’s a different world today. This is a national issue.”

Recently, the fbi informed San Diego and other school districts that a man was taken into custody in Iraq with a publicly available report mentioning crisis-response plans in their schools. (“Schools Abroad Brace Against Terrorism,” Oct. 6, 2004.)

Then last week, the fbi said it appeared that a second disk was recovered in Iraq, with information on additional school systems. The fbi said that the second disk also contained information from public sources, and that federal law-enforcement agencies were contacting those districts as well.

In addition, Eugene W. Hickock, the U.S. Department of Education’s deputy secretary, sent a letter dated Oct. 6 to school districts nationwide with advice on security in the wake of the mass killings at a Russian school last month. At least 334 people died, 156 of them children.

Mr. Hickock said the letter was sent as a general precaution and not as a result of any specific threats.

Legislation Weighed

About 25 percent of Ohio’s 6,229 polling locations are in schools, according to research by the Ohio pta. It passed a resolution last year encouraging local school boards to adopt policies that would prohibit schools from serving as polling places when school is in session. “We feel on election days, safety practices within schools are compromised, possibly putting thousands of children at risk,” the resolution said. “We want to be proactive in preventing a tragedy rather than reacting to it.”

Polling Opinions

“We just can’t be reactionary. What happened over in Russia [the terrorism in a Beslan school], I think about that. They walked into the building and took the school over.”
Joseph A. Palaia
New Jersey State Senator and Former School Principal

“In the last couple of elections, we had an officer in the building. But we still weren’t secure.”
—Tony Piehowicz
Principal, High Point Elementary School, Gahanna, Ohio

“We try really hard not to relocate polling places. But you have to weigh the inconvenience of the voters with the safety of children.”
—Deborah Clark
Board of Elections Supervisor, Pinellas Country, Fla.

“Unless there is some intelligence that schools are being targeted, we don’t have any plans to do anything different at school polling places.”
—Katie Ford
Spokeswoman, Massachusetts’ Executive Office of Public Security

SOURCE: Ken Ruinard/Anderson Independent-Mall/AP

In New Jersey, Republican state Sen. Joseph A. Palaia may resurrect a bill from last year prohibiting polling sites in schools. The bill was widely derided in the legislature and education community that year, but now the lawmaker says he is starting to see a groundswell of support for the idea.

“I’m ready to fight the battle again,” he said. “I was a principal for 27 years, and every time we had an election, I was on pins and needles. I was worrying about the 1,000 people coming into our building, and I couldn’t keep track of them.”

Sally Morgan, a Hudson, Mass., mother, has two children who attend schools in a Boston suburb that will serve as polling locations on Nov. 2. She’s so concerned about their safety that she got in touch not only with the district superintendent, but also Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Ms. Morgan became worried when she voted in the state primaries last month. Ms. Morgan’s polling place is at a local school, and she said there was little security. It looked as if people could roam the halls at will, she said.

“The school was wide open,” Ms. Morgan said. “Every school in every town has security procedures in place, and to relax them for a day or omit them [to have] the public vote seems to me a scary situation.”

Many other districts and county and state officials say such worries are overblown.

Throughout recent history, schools have been used as polling sites, and they perform an important civic duty, some educators said. Schools provide the needed parking and other facilities for polling, as well as access for people with disabilities, which is required under federal law.

And, those educators and officials say, there’s never been any serious threat to the safety of students in schools with polling sites.

“I haven’t heard or seen anything that amounts to a major concern,” said Lee Gahlian, the director of public information for the New York state board of elections.

Sheldon Berman, the superintendent of Massachusetts’ 2,800-student Hudson school district, where Ms. Morgan’s children go to school, said he and other administrators had reviewed and updated the district’s safety plans. He’s confident that polling will run smoothly in the four to six schools in his district that serve as such sites.

“There’s no way we can absolutely guarantee security, but given the circumstances, we have a safe environment,” he said. “We’ve done our homework.”

Ivan Eland applauds what he sees as the calm logic of such officials. He’s a senior fellow and the director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute, a think tank in Oakland, Calif. “A lot of fears are not grounded in statistical reality,” he said. “If we start worrying about these things, there’s no end to what we need to protect. Then you have a police state.”

Closing Schools on Election Day

But others counter that it’s not whether something has happened, but what could happen.

School safety consultant Kenneth S. Trump said he can’t believe the naiveté of educators and state officials who discount the worries. Mr. Trump, the president of a Cleveland-based consulting firm, National School Safety and Security Services, noted the recent terrorist takeover of the school in Beslan, Russia. “Until there is a tragedy, no one will do anything,” he said. “We’re still in denial in this country.”

Mr. Trump also sees a double standard when officials warn of possible terrorist threats in airports, other public venues, and even in whole cities such as New York and Washington, but don’t issue the same warnings for schools.

“They are in fear of creating fear,” he said. “I understand that, but fear is best managed by education, communication, and preparation.”

Some states simply close down their public schools on Election Day, as do some districts, to remove potential problems.

Schools are closed on Election Day in Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and West Virginia, according to 2000 data from the Election Assistance Commission. Some Maryland schools also close, and 60 percent of public schools in Virginia do as well.

Reporter-Researcher Marianne D. Hurst and Staff Writer Sean Cavanagh contributed to this report.

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