Schools can’t decline being a polling place, even in light of school shootings

Voters the touch screens as they vote in person at La Mesa Junior High School in Santa Clarita on Tuesday, 060722. Dan Watson/The Signal

Schools have long been election-day polling places. Valencia Valley Elementary School is one of them. 

But on the heels of the recent Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, at least one Valencia Valley parent was not at all happy with voters this month going in and out of the campus’ multipurpose room to take part in democracy, and she’s hoping that’ll change in the future. According to school officials, however, they have little choice in the matter. 

“Prior to becoming superintendent, this whole concept of schools as polling sites has been a constant battle,” said Newhall School District Superintendent Jeff Pelzel. “We used to have multiple sites that were polling sites when I first came into the district, and we worked our tails off to find alternative sites for the county to explore rather than using school sites.” 

One of the issues in the past, Pelzel told The Signal, is that a school like Valencia Valley is packed full with students and staff. Los Angeles County’s use of the campus’ multipurpose room, he said, has had a drastic impact on school operations. 

Valencia Valley parent Heather Zakar, who has a first-grader and sixth-grader at the school in the 23600 block of Carrizo Drive in Valencia, said that during this last election, cafeteria workers prepared food for the kids, and instead of serving it in the multipurpose room as they do on a regular basis, they brought it to students in the neighboring hallway. 

“Also, I learned that the poll workers,” she continued, “had access to the adult restroom that’s located in the front office. So, those volunteers would be able to go through these locked or secured guarded doors, go into the common hallway — I’m guessing about 20 or 30 feet — and use a restroom, and then have to come back.” 

Despite what parents may have felt before, there’s now a growing concern with more and more school shootings across the country. 

“When we’re at a time like we’re in right now where we’re trying to find the best methods to keep kids and school communities safe, why would schools even be an option anymore?” Zakar asked rhetorically. “I know it was done customarily at our school. I actually went and voted there before I even had kids. But the climate has completely changed now.” 

And while schools in the area like Wiley Canyon Elementary, Peachland Elementary, Newhall Elementary and Pico Canyon Elementary have been used as polling places in the past, this year, Pelzel said, Valencia Valley was the only Newhall School District campus to offer a venue to vote, though La Mesa Junior High School in Santa Clarita was a polling place. Yet, regardless of any pleas made in the name of safety concerns, the county doesn’t seem to want to rule out the use of schools in this capacity. 

Santa Clarita residents, Janet, left, and Robert Hinds receive their “I Voted” stickers after voting in person at La Mesa Juniror High School in Santa Clarita on Tuesday, 060722. Dan Watson/The Signal

Mike Sanchez, a spokesman for the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder, emailed a statement from the county to The Signal stating that the “safety and well-being of voters, election workers and members of our community while at a vote center is our top priority. Schools are essential public locations that have historically served as safe and trusted spaces for voting for many generations. California election law authorizes public sites to serve as voting locations, and the Legislature specifically designates schools as priority voting locations.” 

The statement also made note that the county works with schools, school districts and local law enforcement to ensure accessibility and security months in advance of the voting period and election day. 

According to deputy Natalie Arriaga, a spokeswoman for the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, sheriff’s deputies indeed were monitoring the polls during this last election and provided additional patrol checks throughout the day, though she acknowledged they were not posted up at one site all day long. 

Pelzel said he and the district have done all they can to keep these locations safe over the years, including paying money out of their own pockets for additional patrols. 

“We have a security company that normally does patrolling for us,” he continued. “We had a person there for both Monday and Tuesday. We also asked our Sheriff’s Department to increase patrol in the morning and after school, and they did throughout the day. But there’s still anxiety and I understand that.” 

In a written response to Zakar about why schools have to be polling places in a time when mass shootings are becoming seemingly more frequent, the L.A. County Registrar’s office wrote that “public sites, including schools, are so essential in ensuring the right to vote, that California election law recognizes this and specifically authorizes schools and other public buildings to be used as voting facilities within California Elections Code 12283 and CA Executive Order N-67-20.” 

The letter added that the “important ongoing relationship with school districts and individual school sites has existed for decades, during which the Los Angeles County Registrar has had a record of zero fatalities or incidents involving firearms at vote centers. This year, over 200 school sites served as vote centers across Los Angeles County.” 

The question, however, still remains: Can parents, schools or neighbors do anything to keep a school campus — or any other location of concern, for that matter — from being used as a polling place? Ultimately, the L.A. County Registrar’s office did not directly answer the question. 

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