As election looms, questions over student safety at school polling places

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CAMP HILL, Pa. (WHTM) – Concerns have grown in recent weeks across several states — including Pennsylvania — about schools being used as polling places this election cycle.

Safety worries are prompting districts to look for changes.

It usually hosts school plays and study halls, but the auditorium at Camp Hill High School, principal Mark Ziegler said, will also play host to the all-important show of American politics in under two weeks.

“They come in here,” he explained, standing at the front of the auditorium, “they get processed, they vote, and they basically do a horseshoe right back out to Chestnut Street.”

That’s the problem; the door voters will enter through opens onto the sidewalk. The normal procedures for signing in visitors don’t apply on election day.

They’ve done what they can to improve safety — moving the actual ballot-casting room to the auditorium instead of the band room and increasing security, for example.

But Ziegler thinks it’s not enough after high-profile school shootings like the massacre at Sandy Hook in 2012.

“Any time you open up your doors without really too much screening,” Ziegler said, “it draws up concern.”

The school has tried to have the polling place changed, but administrators have not had luck getting the county elections office to approve it.

A handful of other Cumberland County schools are polling places, as well; the East Pennsboro district, though, closes its elementary schools for the day.

Central Dauphin School District does the same, as five elementary schools there are used to cast ballots.

Harrisburg schools stay open despite several buildings taking part in the process; Susquehanna Township schools stay open, too.

Camp Hill High School experimented with closing down for the day a few years ago, but Ziegler prefers to keep teaching.

“Is there a better location which would present less risk to our students that come to school here every day?” he asked.

It can be challenging for election officials to find another community building with adequate disability access. Schools, generally speaking, make great, centrally-located polling places.

Dauphin County election officials say moving polling places from schools would severely impact their ability to serve voters.

Some supporters of school polling places also argue it’s important for students to see this part of the democratic process up close and personal.

Ziegler said at this point in the fight, they just have to focus on keeping kids as safe as possible as the public picks a president.

“I don’t know what options we have left,” he said.

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