Monday, November 25, 2013

Voting Access vs. School Safety

School safety is a core pillar at the School District of Janesville. We are committed to protecting students, staff, parents and visitors in our facilities. It’s a commitment we take seriously always.  I have been alerted by staff and parents of a safety concern in some of our schools on election day. This concern is legitimate and deserves our immediate attention.

On election day, we open our doors to voters in five School District of Janesville schools. Voting machines are set up, usually in our gyms, to provide secure polling locations. We work closely with Janesville city officials to ensure polling places meet federal, state and local regulations. We are also mindful that safety for our students, staff, parents and visitors at those five schools does not take a day off on election Tuesdays.  At issue is conflicting functions. On the one hand, we are committed to provide a safe environment for learning. We cannot expect high achievement from our staff and students if they do not feel safe. At the same time, we have a responsibility to our community, and we want to accommodate open and free elections as best we can. Neighborhood schools are ideally located throughout the city to align with voting wards, and we want to assist the city in locating polling places consistent with the wards.

A problem arises when voting and teaching at the same time jeopardizes safety in the school building.  It’s reasonable to ask how we can ensure a safe environment for students, staff, parents and visitors in our buildings when those buildings are open to the general public to come and go at will before, during and after school.

I will share one example with you that illustrates the problem.

Harrison Elementary School is a polling school. Federal law requires that a handicap access door be provided at polling locations. At Harrison, the only handicap access door is the main entrance door. That’s the door voters use to get into the building on election day.  When entering Harrison, visitors walk past the office, down a hallway past two pods and then down another hallway to the gym where voting machines are located. This route takes voters past classrooms,  conference rooms and other areas where students are being taught, counseled and otherwise supported.  Harrison is an open pod-type school. Its pods and hallways cannot be blocked off. There are no traditional metal expandable gates to close off areas. Any other means to close off areas to limit voter access to students and staff would risk violating fire and other safety codes.  Harrison parents have expressed their safety concerns for their children to Harrison Elementary Principal  Jessica Grandt-Turke. She has discussed those concerns with Dr. Yolanda Cargile, Director of Student Services whose duties include safety.  Dr. Cargile will be meeting December 12 with city officials to review polling locations and safety concerns. We are also checking with other districts to learn from their experiences. We have found that most schools can isolate polling places from students and staff, but we have not been able to find any districts with a situation similar to Harrison’s challenges.

We may or may not have a February 2014 primary. There will be a spring election in April 2014.  I want to assure everyone that we will continue to take steps to address safety concerns prior to any upcoming elections. Given the time limitation, these may be temporary steps prior to permanent solutions we will implement before high-turnout elections later in 2014.

As we move through this process, you can be assured that the safety of our students, staff, parents and visitors is a top priority at the School District of Janesville.

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