Amherst to address safety risks of using schools as polling sites


Staff Writer
Thursday, January 18, 2018

AMHERST — At least once each year, and sometimes more frequently when there are state and presidential elections, Amherst’s three elementary schools become polling sites where residents cast ballots for candidates and decide various questions.

For some parents and staff, election days pose unnecessary safety risks, because voters might get into areas of a school where they could accost children and teachers or engage in inappropriate conduct.

Ariella Schwell, a parent of two children at Crocker Farm School, told the Select Board last week that these worries are on the minds of parents and staff in advance of the next town election on March 27.

“We are concerned about having the schools open to a large number of people with unfettered access to the building while school is underway,” Schwell said.

Currently, three of the 10 polling places are located at the three elementary schools, with Precinct 6 voters going to Fort River on South East Street, Precinct 7 to Crocker Farm on West Street and Precinct 9 to Wildwood on Strong Street.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he is familiar with the issues of using schools as voting place from his tenure as chairman of the Somerville School Committee. There, he said, actual classrooms were disrupted with voting booths each time an election was held.

“Just trying to find the balance that meets everybody’s need is a big challenge” Bockelman said.

There aren’t that many handicapped accessible places within the neighborhoods where polling locations need to be that voters would recognize as voting sites, he explained.

Threat assessment

Superintendent Michael Morris said he has met with parents and teachers to discuss the issue.

“My perspective has been that I want to take all these concerns very seriously,” Morris said.

But Morris doesn’t want to make any immediate decisions and said he will have a better grasp of the safety concerns by consulting with the police. Police Chief Scott Livingstone has assigned a lieutenant to do threat assessments at each school.

“I want to make the most informed recommendation to the town that I can,” Morris said.

The Amherst School Committee will take up the matter next month.

Morris said he has conversations with police prior to election days about how voting will affect the schools.

Bockelman said Amherst already finds it difficult to get constables and it could be more costly to run elections if there is a need for additional police for every polling location, if that is a recommendation developed from the threat assessment.

While scheduling curriculum days to coincide with elections, so that only teachers need attend, is a possibility, Morris said it’s not always possible, because of the frequency of elections.

“In Amherst, we can’t do curriculum days for all election days,” Morris said.

Schwell said that, long term, the town may need to stop using schools as polling places, because unknown safety hazards could be introduced during those hours even if the school is closed.

The topic of school safety on election day came as the Select Board approved changing the polling location at Fort River from its music room to its gymnasium. Gyms are used at both Wildwood and Crocker Farm.

Morris sent a letter to the Select Board identifying safety as the primary reason for the request.

“The gymnasium has two exterior doors, which allow for a traffic flow that supports voters to be able to perform their civic duty without entering school spaces that are shared with students and staff on election days,” Morris wrote. “The music room does not have that capability of fully separating the voting process from the operations of the school.”

The state elections division of the Secretary of State has no rules centered on use of schools as polling places, spokeswoman Debra O’Malley said.

“There are no requirements in state law regarding the use of schools as polling places, though cities and towns often have their own policies,” O’Malley said. “Some communities choose to schedule professional development days when elections are being held, while others have implemented other safety procedures around recess, access to certain parts of the building, and traffic.”

All polling places must have a police officer or constable present while polls are open, she said.

School buildings best?

Select Board member Alisa Brewer said she appreciates the thoughtful approach that Morris and the police are using. Still, she said it is uncertain whether Amherst can find other suitable sites that have parking and accessibility and are a short distance from homes.

School buildings, she said, may be preferable to some other sites, such as the North Zion Korean Church Hall in North Amherst, where Precinct 1 voters vote, with parking down a hill from the building.

“We struggle to find the right spaces,” Brewer said.

Adding additional police, if that is a recommendation, could be worrying, Brewer observed, as there has been pushback against having any police presence in schools, including a controversial idea to hire a school resource officer for the high school in the late 1990s that was shelved.

Select Board member Connie Kruger said that safety has to be put above all other logistics.

“If there is a way to mitigate the risk it would be good to know,” Kruger said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.