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School safety concerns raised over the use of schools as polling places

School safety concerns resurfaced in the wake of this year's election here in Tulsa. Thousands of voters cast their ballots in dozens of schools which the county uses as polling places. One Tulsa teacher says a large turnout at Union's Jarman Elementary disrupted school operations in several ways.

Teacher Justin Porter says most elections haven't caused problems. In fact, they provide an important opportunity for the public to see their schools. However, the 2000 election with its high turnout, was different. "The fire lane was completely full of cars,” Porter said. “The students couldn't access the school from the front parking lots. We had to walk students to their parents' cars,” he explained.

Porter says had there been an emergency, there was no way emergency vehicles could have reached the building. He said phone lines were jammed with voters asking for directions to the school. And the school secretary was unable to keep everyone confined to the voting area. "And there were some adults who made it into the back, into the lounge area, and made it to the cafeteria where the children were present," Porter said.

Linda Caine supervises Tulsa Public School polling places on election day. "We try to keep the machines as far out of the area of the kids as we can," she said. Caine says that there have been no problems or complaints at the 37 sites, where security officers are watchful. "Everyone is aware of each site being used as a polling place, and they keep an extra eye," she explained.

The law allows election boards to demand access to two places for elections: schools and municipal buildings. 13 percent of Tulsa County's 242 precincts are in schools.

Tulsa County Election Board Secretary Scott Orbison says if schools are concerned about security they should provide more. "There is no way we can help them pay for the cost of security, but I can certainly see that,” he said. “And that's one of their obligations to the election procedure. Same thing with parking."

Orbison says citizens must have places to vote within boundary lines of precincts. He says schools have provided the polling places for years without incident. He believes with more cooperation and awareness, it will continue.

Porter estimated that 5,000 voters cast ballots at Jarman Elementary, a figure Orbison disputes. He says the average number of registered voters per precinct is under 2,000. Orbison says the majority of elections in Tulsa County are held in churches, which are paid $35 for the use of the building.

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