School officials and parents across the nation are turning an increasingly critical eye on the time- honored tradition of voters' casting ballots in the gymnasiums and hallways of neighborhood school buildings while classes go on as usual just a few yards away.
Citing a list of safety concerns, many officials are opting to keep youngsters home on Nov. 4, Election Day.
"School districts across the country now spend millions of dollars each year on controlling access to buildings with locked doors and surveillance cameras to keep strangers out," said Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based advocacy group. "In a post-Columbine, post-9/11 world, we shouldn't be opening the doors at our schools on Election Day and just hoping everything will be OK."
In Maryland, state law requires public schools to be closed on Election Day.
The decision to cancel classes on Election Day in the Rockland public schools in Massachusetts stemmed from an accident - an elderly driver, on his way to vote in the state's presidential primary on Feb. 5, struck and critically injured an 8-year-old girl outside an elementary school in a neighboring district.
The accident and the response by Rockland officials caught the attention of a PTA president in Aurora, Ill., a mother of two whose worries about the use of schools as polling places prompted the district to give students the day off on Election Day.
"The impetus for our resolution was simply a parent who asked, 'Does it make sense for the security measures we have in place at our schools to be abandoned on Election Day?' " said Robin Church, president of the Parents' Council at Indian Prairie School District 204 in Aurora, a suburb of Chicago. "We all agreed that student safety was paramount every day, and that includes Election Day."
At the Smithtown Central School District in New York, Election Day will find teachers and administrators gathered at a professional development conference, while the district's 11,000 students enjoy a holiday from classes.
"The decision to have a nonattendance day in November coinciding with Election Day was a no-brainer," said Edward Ehmann, Smithtown's superintendent of schools. "Our parking lots are already crowded with people coming and going on a regular school day, and this election is expected to have a record voter turnout."
In Allen County, Ind., which includes Fort Wayne, students will be in school on Election Day, but voters will not. Officials have moved the polling places from schools to churches and other public venues.
"In today's world, we ask a mother to show her driver's license before she can deliver cupcakes to her daughter's classroom," said John H. Weicker, security director for Fort Wayne Community Schools. "But on Election Day, we were allowing every Tom, Dick and Harry to walk in the front door."
The wisdom of closing schools on Election Day has skeptics, including Kathy Christie, chief of staff at the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States. She described the effort to separate students from voters as a "knee-jerk reaction."
"It breaks my heart to think we are losing the opportunity to send a very strong message to children about their civic duties," Christie said. "Keeping kids home on Election Day also creates an inconvenience and another worry about day care for their parents."
Chicago is one city where classes will not be canceled, nor polling places relocated, on Nov. 4.
"Our schools are public buildings, and we need to make them as available as possible to our community," said Mike Vaughn, a Chicago Public Schools spokesman. "Our primary concern is that there is not a disruption to the students, so we've made sure the voting booths are not located in high-traffic areas."
It is a decision with which the Cook County clerk, David Orr, whose jurisdiction includes the Chicago Public Schools, disagrees, especially since a record number of voters are expected to cast ballots.
"In an ideal world, it would be nice for children to see voters in their schools, but you have to ask yourself, 'What if?' " Orr said.