School safety was the main issue discussed last week during the Sewanhaka Central High School District’s Board of Education meeting, as Superintendent Ralph Ferrie laid out the district’s new security upgrades.
Suddenly, tensions flared as parents and representatives from New Hyde Park Memorial High School demanded that the board remove the school from the list of local election polling places.
Several parents expressed their fears that schools are now soft targets, as evidenced by the increase in school shootings over the past years. Danielle Messina, a parent from New Hyde Park, said she was worried about schools in the district, adding that the use of New Hyde Park Memorial as a polling place contradicts the district’s new safety guidelines.
“I remember when I was in a lockdown on primary day in the elementary school, and I was hiding behind a desk for two hours, scared that I couldn’t protect my kids,” Messina said. “It’s a terrible feeling, and we shouldn’t be allowing strangers into our buildings.”
Ferrie agreed with parents, saying that he had already reached out to State Sen. Elaine Phillips, a Republican from Flower Hill, for help in pushing for legislation that would allow school districts to opt out of using their buildings as polling places.
Phillips said in a statement that schools have been working hard to enhance their security systems to ensure students’ safety. “Yet,” she said, “once a year or more, schools are required to throw open their doors and let everyone in, even if experts feel that they are not equipped to handle the extra security needs that go along with being designated as a polling site. We need to let schools administrators decide if opening their doors to the public puts children at additional risk.”
“This is just common sense,” Ferrie said. “ We should not take an unsafe position. This is something a district should have the ability to opt out of.”
State Assemblyman Edward Ra, a Republican from Franklin Square, added that a similar bill has been on the Assembly’s floor for a few years now, slowly gaining traction as school safety concerns continue to increase. Ra has suggested that the Nassau County Board of Elections move the polling place from New Hyde Park Memorial to Michael J. Tully Park, across the street. It has indoor facilities. With just a week remaining before the Sept. 13 primaries, however, some district officials believe it is too late to change venues.
James Reddan, a Board of Education trustee, voiced frustration that he was not informed about the situation sooner. He said that the only reason the high school was selected as a polling place was because residents had fought back against the Board of Elections’ decision last year to use local area elementary schools.
“They have other places to make voting locations,” Reddan said. “This is just slapping us on the face for pushing back.”
Both Ferrie and Board of Education President David Del Santo, who also represents New Hyde Park, agreed that the high school should not have been designated as a polling place, but explained that the district could do little to change the location, given the time restriction.
Del Santo expressed his own concerns about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new voting policy, which will allow up to 24,000 parolees to vote.
In a joint statement with her Republican colleagues, Bonnie Arone, counsel to the Democratic commissioners for the Board of Elections, said the board was unaware of any problems with its selection of polling places until last week, and that a list of sites was sent out in early August. She said that the pushback from New Hyde Park did not influence the board’s decision to remove the polls from locals elementary schools, and that the high school had been chosen as a polling place to make it easier for the community to access.
“Our people survey the schools and make sure that the polls are in a location that’s easy to access and away from the rest of the school,” Garone said.
Parents have asked the district to send out letters of explanation to the community with details about the situation, and to excuse any student who wishes to be absent on Sept. 13.
At press time, the Board of Education was discussing a possible solution to resolve parents’ concerns.