Voting at Schools: Should it Stop?
Port Washington-Saukville School Board members discussed several ways to make the district safer during a Building and Grounds Committee meeting on Monday night — among them, supporting the end of using district buildings as polling locations.
Buildings in the Port Washington-Saukville School District will soon be using a camera and buzzer system for monitoring foot traffic through its schools as part of an effort to beef up safety and security after tragedy shook an elementary school in Newtown, CT, in December.
The change from the currently unlocked front entrances is just one of several safety issues discussed during a Building and Grounds Committee meeting on Monday night. Board members and district administrators also discussed continued practice in responding to emergency situations — such as table top exercises and an increase in lockdown drills with students — and expressed strong concerns with continuing to use district buildings for voting days.
"To do voting the way we have been, we're not comfortable with that," Superintendent Michael Weber said.
Two buildings in the Port Washington-Saukville School District — Dunwiddie Elementary and Thomas Jefferson Middle School — are currently used as polling locations during elections in Port Washington. The fact that these buildings are wide open to the public for these days has been a concern of the past, but the conversation about school safety thrust the issue to the foreground.
Weber said his at-minimum recommendation would be that the board request police presence at those two schools on voting days, but some board members were quick to suggest that they fully supported stopping the practice.
"For me, this (decision) is really easy," board member Sarah McCutcheon said of disallowing voting to take place in the schools. "I think there's another way that we can teach our kids about voting besides opening our doors and having (such public interaction) … I have absolutely no [reservations] about saying the time has come for us to find (a new place)."
While the fact that the voting days could be seen as an educational opportunity was discussed, many felt that function had been lost.
"I think (voting in the schools is) something we really need to think about — I don't think its an educational opportunity any more," board member Brian McCutcheon said. "And it's sad — it's a sad thing that it can't be used for that … that we have to think about security during voting. But, I think we do."
Board members also expressed concern about the traffic congestion that is created on voting days — and the potentially dangerous situations that creates.
"Even on a good day, the traffic can be (bad) … people not watching (for kids)," Sarah McCutcheon said. "Then add all those voting people."
School Board President James Eden said he agreed that traffic was an issue, and likely a more pressing one when it comes to safety.
"When we talk about safety we keep talking about the really ... (about the) once-in-a-trillion chance that something could happen in the building. I think (the board's) safety concern of the outside traffic is a more likely occurrence," Eden said.
Buzzers, cameras a quick fix
Installing the buzzers and cameras on the school entrances is a quick fix to an issue that requires a long-term look, officials said. While the technology will require some attention from office staff, officials felt the change wouldn't have too big of an impact.
"It may happen that they have to wait a minute … but for the most part, (the office is) covered well," Dunwiddie Elementary Principal Diane Johnson said.
"It's going to be a change for how we manage and operate … but it will increase security, and we will know who's coming into the buildings — and we’ll have an opportunity to allow or disallow someone," Superintendent Michael Weber said.
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In the long-term, the district has been taking advice from School Board Member Brenda Fristch — who works as an architect — regarding possible redesigns to the front entrances that would add indoor waiting areas for visitors while keeping the public blocked from the school unless granted access.
"Our goal was to limit access into school during school hours but still offer a warm and inviting area," said Director of Business Services Jim Froemming, who also works closely on maintaining the District Crisis Manual. The suggested changes would not make "major structural" changes to any of the buildings.
Practice makes prepared
Students participate in fire and lockdown drills district-wide — and officials said the number of lockdown drills has been increased since the December tragedy in Connecticut.
On top of that, officials have participated in some mock-emergency training drills with local emergency management teams and also plan to practice policies using table top exercises.
Johnson recalled participating in a mock shooting situation several years ago, citing the exercise as helpful.
"We were a part of watching them proceed through the building, and then … I went to the police department and they started shooting questions at you," she said, asking for answers about the number of kids in each class, the number absent, which doors are open, etc. "They start making you a part of that conversation so that if it really happened, you would be ready."
Johnson said there are so many variables that you could likely be prepared for, so the more you practice the better you'll be at handling a variety of situations — and that includes the kids.
"The more we practice with our kids, the less scared they’ll be. We practice fire drills every month — and our kids are so good at it. They can be as good in (lockdown drills)," she said.
Port Washington Police Chief Kevin Hingiss said the department has recently participated in lockdown drills with the schools, observing and offering feedback on the procedures being practiced. A message left with Saukville Police Chief Bill Meloy was not immediately returned.
"We've offered our services not only to the public schools but also to the private schools — basically to help them in any way that we can," Hingiss said, adding the important part of emergency response is a consistent plan, and training on that plan.
"From our perspective, we have to be trained and have a plan — and it helps that the school has a plan, and knows what we're going to do so that we're on the same page," he said, "God forbid (something horrible) does happen."
School officials also stressed reworking the District Crisis Manual, and making sure all schools operate consistently. The School Board holds its meetings the second Monday of each month, meeting next at 6 p.m. Feb. 11. The discussion about safety in the schools is ongoing.