Schools with polling places should stay open
Allentown Morning Call
Sunday, October 16, 2016
By Thomas Hylton
Next month, Easton Area public schools will be closed Election Day for a teacher in-service day. This will ensure students are not accidently exposed to voters participating in our democracy. One of those voters might have malevolent intentions, so the school board decided to cancel all classes because four schools are used as polling places.
Public schools have traditionally been a mainstay of the election process. Because they are found everywhere, and contain large, handicapped accessible spaces like gymnasiums, they are the most common polling place in America.
Nearly one-third of all Election Day voters cast their ballots in schools during the 2008 and 2012 elections.
But we’ve grown ever more fearful of allowing adults in or near school buildings, particularly since the 2012 massacre of 27 children and two adults at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. In fact, three states cancel public school classes on general election days, and four make cancellations optional. Similar legislation has been introduced in other states, as well.
This protectiveness flies in the face of a little-known reality: It’s never been safer to be a child.
The rate of death from all causes for children and youth has steadily declined for decades, to about a tenth of what it was in 1935. That’s right, a tenth! Just since 1990, child mortality rates have fallen by nearly half.
That’s death from all causes; child homicide rates, specifically, are also at record lows. The leading cause of death and injury for children? Car crashes.
No matter how many laws we pass and policies we implement, it’s impossible to spare children -- in school or anywhere else -- from every conceivable danger.
Consider the nightmare of Sandy Hook. The building was locked tight, but the intruder – armed with a high-powered rifle – simply shot out a glass panel next to the doors. So do we eliminate glass panels and first floor windows?
Schools all across America routinely carry out “intruder” drills. Until recently, teachers and students were instructed to lock their classrooms and hide inside. Now there’s a new protocol: teachers and students are given latitude to run from the building, hide, or create a diversion in order to escape. To create more realism, drills often include a school employee posing as an “intruder” wearing a colored vest walking through the halls.
It’s hard to see what these exercises accomplish besides terrifying children. They certainly won’t help with another nightmare scenario: children shot at recess. Every day, millions of school children play outdoors, making them sitting ducks for a psychopath with a gun. In fact, children playing in school yards were shot and killed in Jonesboro, Ark., in 1998, and Stockton, Calif., in 1989.
Let’s consider another nightmare: a bomb. America’s worst school massacre dates to 1927 in Michigan, when the treasurer of the local school board secretly planted dynamite in the Bath Township Elementary School and detonated it with a timer, killing 38 children and two teachers. Other adults were killed outside by another bomb in a truck.
Yet all these horrific tragedies are rare – extremely rare.
Since 1974, there have been 18 public school shootings in which at least two people were killed, for a total of 96 children and adults killed. During that same period, 45,667 children under the age of 14 were killed as passengers in car crashes. This is in a nation whose current public school population is about 50 million children and youth.
How about “stranger danger,” another highly publicized nightmare scenario in which a child is abducted by a stranger? Once again, the facts demonstrate just how far perception contrasts with reality.
A recent U.S. Justice Department survey showed there were 105 kidnappings of children and youth by strangers in 2011, the same number as a previous survey in 1997. Of those abducted in 2011, 92 percent were recovered alive. (Officials say recent technologies, such as cell phones and the internet, make it easier for law enforcement to solve such crimes than in past decades.)
If we want to mitigate the most common childhood danger, we should focus on cars. A child is hundreds of times more likely to be killed in a car accident than by a school shooter or an abductor. Fortunately, thanks to seat belts, car seats, and ever-improving car safety technology, child traffic fatalities have declined substantially in recent decades.
There’s no safer place for a child than in school. Rather than relentlessly focus on nightmare scenarios, we should welcome the Election Day process in our schools -- a teachable moment every November. If possible, classes should be given an opportunity to watch their adult neighbors casting their ballots. Voting should be celebrated, not feared.