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Safety concerns have kept elections out of Butler County school buildings

| Saturday, May 11, 2013, 7:56 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Shari Brewer, Butler County election director, looks over the voting machines in the county courthouse Wednesday, May 8, 2013. Between elections, the machines are stored at the Butler County Bureau of Elections in the basement of the county courthouse. They have been programmed for May 21 primary elections and will be taken to the county’s 89 polling places three of four days before the election.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Shari Brewer, Butler County election director, looks over a voting machine in the county courthouse Wednesday, May 8, 2013. Between elections, the machines are stored at the Butler County Bureau of Elections in the basement of the county courthouse. They have been programmed for May 21 primary elections and will be taken to the county’s 89 polling places three of four days before the election.

It has been years since Butler County election officials used a school as a polling place. Educators said they want it to stay that way because of the potential difficulty in moving hundreds of voters through heightened security measures designed to protect school children from violent crimes.

“It would really compromise security to have polling places at schools,” said Mike Strutt, superintendent of the Butler Area Schools, who has worked in the district for 24 years.

Deadly school shootings in Ohio and Connecticut have pushed school administrators to increase security at schools through the use of metal detectors, surveillance cameras and armed guards.

Strutt says he understands why school officials elsewhere in Western Pennsylvania want polling places relocated because of safety concerns.

In Allegheny County, the school districts of West Jefferson Hills, Bethel Park and Chartiers Valley asked the county's Board of Elections to move polling places out of school buildings. State election law gives county election boards final say on where to put them.

Butler County Elections Director Shari Brewer said the only polling place in Butler County located on school property is in the Moniteau School District administration building.

A decade ago, about five or six Butler County schools served as polling places.

“Columbine really was the start of getting security in schools,” said Regis Young, former elections director in Butler County, referring to the April 20, 1999, school shooting that left 15 dead, including the two students who carried out the massacre.

“Several schools approached me and asked me to find new polling locations,” Young said.

“Churches and municipal buildings are better locations,” he said. “People don't want to go through metal detectors and security just to vote.”

Young said, “When push comes to shove, if there's no other place — this happens in rural areas sometimes — a school doesn't really have a choice.”

School districts in Illinois, Indiana, New York and Virginia have asked lawmakers to consider removing polling places from schools.

Strutt says that Butler Area schools have some of the tightest security in Western Pennsylvania.

“We have metal detectors and retired state troopers at the entrance. We have been concerned about security for more than 15 years,” he said. “We are always considering how we can make security better. Voting in our schools would not work,” he said.

The county's largest district, Seneca Valley, has security in place that would make voting at schools nearly impossible, said Linda Andreassi, a district spokeswoman.

Everyone entering district schools has to be buzzed in. The check-in process then requires visitors to provide a driver's license to be checked by the Raptor System, a software program that checks people for any crimes against children.

“This would certainly present delays during the day if numerous people are coming in at one time,” Andreassi said.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at rwills@tribweb.com.

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