Valley Stream schools have opened their doors to voters in past village elections. But the days of a lax approach to school safety on Election Day — with perhaps looser supervision and greater access to the building — are decidedly over.
Residents will head to the polls in March to vote for two board trustees and public school buildings across the village will again serve as polling locations.
Growing concerns around school crime and gun violence have placed added pressure on school districts to be a willing host for voters while minimizing potential security risks to its students and staff.
The problem, as summed up by village clerk James Hunter, who heads the village election, is that “village elections are conducted during a regular school day when students and staff are present.
“The presence of election equipment, workers, and voters can be very disruptive to students and the faculty. Entrance to the building by others who may not be there to vote is a safety and security risk. Schools now require a photo ID to enter, which is not required in state election law.”
Early last year, village officials sought to purge the problem by cutting polling places down to eight from the previous 13 and pulling them from school buildings.
Those efforts were rolled back in response to complaints from stakeholders who argued that the remaining ballot-casting locations would cause unnecessary confusion and make voting harder for residents of color.
The issue seemed to have been put to rest. That is until fears of possible school security threats on voting day were newly stoked amid revelations last November of a gun scare at Valley Stream District 13.
A man, later identified as an off-duty police officer, was caught on footage leaving Howell Road School on Election Day in possession of a hand gun. The police later determined the man posed no credible threat.
School districts face a difficult task in balancing between the seemingly competing interests of student security and civic openness.
As noted by District 13 Superintendent Judith LaRocca: Schools are called on to make sure the “voting procedure is carried out smoothly and efficiently to maintain the integrity of the election process while ensuring a secure environment.”
LaRocca and her fellow superintendents discussed strategies such as a single access point for voters to enter and leave the building, restricted access to bathroom facilities, and relocating nearby classes away from the polling site.
At Valley Stream District 13, voters will enter and exit through the single, exterior entrance door at Wheeler Avenue School with access to the rest of the school being strictly off-limits. Bathroom access is restricted and requires a security escort.
“Classes that would normally be held in the area used for voting will be relocated to an area not accessible by those coming to vote,” said LaRocca. “At Wheeler Avenue, the voting site will be the gymnasium.”
All three schools in District 24 will be open to voters on March 19.
“For the safety and security of our students and staff, it’s important to note that bathroom use by those coming to vote is not permitted, except for authorized personnel,” noted Superintendent Unal Karakas in a statement. “Furthermore, a dedicated security guard in each building diligently monitors the flow of traffic in the vicinity of the voting area within the school day.”
Karakas said school staff, students, and families will receive fair notice about the school facilities being used as polling locations during the school day while also maintaining a strong relationship with Nassau County police.
This year, Valley Stream Central High School and Memorial Junior High School will serve as polling locations. Voters will enter through a separate exterior entrance in each school building to access the designated voting area, which will be closed to the student area.
“Classes normally held in the location used for voting are moved to auxiliary classrooms within the school,” said Valley Stream Central High School Superintendent Wayne Loper. “At Central High School, the polling site is in the auditorium lobby. At Memorial Junior High School, the polling site is in the gymnasium. Bathroom access is restricted and requires a security escort.”
At District 30, voters will head to Clear Stream Avenue or Shaw Avenue School. Superintendent Roxanne Garcia-France said protecting voters’ right to vote within a welcoming and safe environment while ensuring school safety are not mutually exclusive.
Voters will be brought to designated voting locations at each school building with clear signs for directions, noted Garcia-France. They’ll be tightened security with additional security staff on patrol. Voters are not permitted to use the restrooms. In addition, designated restrooms are available for election workers to use.
Students are reminded that elections will be taking place within the building through the loudspeaker and parents and staff will be notified through signs posted at the doors.
“Valley Stream District 30 remains committed to promoting the democratic process and ensuring that every citizen has the right to vote without hindrance based on their zip code,” said Garcia-France. “The district will continue to advocate for legislation that would give school boards more decision-making power in determining whether a school should be used as a polling place, allowing them to reject or appeal such a decision if it poses a security threat to the building or its occupants.”
Garcia-France noted that parents never raised concerns about the schools used as polling sites through the district’s annual community budget survey, which gathers community feedback on improving school safety and inclusivity.
Hofstra Professor Andrea Libresco, head of the Minors in Civic Engagement, noted that some disruption and inconvenience are a small price to pay next to the benefits students gain from seeing civic participation in action.
“The right to vote is precious and sacred, and the most powerful, nonviolent tool in a democratic society,” said Libresco.
Students shouldn’t be walled off from seeing it but “immersing them on Election Day and be taught about a fundamental piece of democracy. Generally speaking, exposure to civic participation raises civic participation.”
Libresco said that “overinflated nervousness” over security concerns while understandable in the age of school shootings detracts from the need to get students, the next generation of voters, involved early on in the democratic process.
“Half the world goes to bed at night, wishing they had the rights Americans do,” said Libresco.“So covering voting up, putting voters somewhere else, not letting students see them really doesn’t make sense.”
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