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7 Steps Schools Can Take to Keep Sporting Events Safe

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With recent shootings at or near football games, school districts are taking a fresh look at safety measures to protect students and the public at those events and other after-school activities.

As Arianna Prothero and I recently reported, some districts have started using metal detectors and wands to prevent attendees from taking weapons into stadiums and gymnasiums. Some are requiring spectators to use clear bags to enter events. Others have banned backpacks entirely. In Florida's Duval County school district, where one person was killed after a football game last year and another injured outside of a game in May, varsity football games are played earlier in the day, and attendees are banned from wearing certain types of clothing, according to the district.

These incidents—and high-level fears in the public of mass shootings—have pushed safety at after-school events to the forefront, said Karissa Niehoff, the executive director of the Indianapolis-based National Federation of State High School Associations, which supports sporting and performing arts at the high school level.

"While most states are now doing their best with safety and security measures during the academic day, it's tough when that bell rings at the end of the school day and the proverbial rock gets shoved into the gym door," said Niehoff. "It's very hard to institute the same level of tightness and oversight that you get during the academic day."

The Department Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Office recommend that districts include sporting events in their emergency operations plans, said Justin Kurland, the manager of interscholastic sports safety and security at the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4) based at the Univeristy of Southern Mississippi. But despite that advice and multiple incidents of gun violence at games over the years, many district plans do not address security at after-school events, he said.

"You have to wonder why that is at this point, especially given the track record of there being so many incidents that have taken place in such a short period of time," Kurland said. "It's just something that's being overlooked presently, and it shouldn't be."

Last month the center rolled out a free online training course that can be taken by athletic directors, principals, coaches, school resource officers, parents, and even students to get a better understanding about how to plan and respond to incidents in the after-school hours.

Kurland is wary about making broad, general recommendations because security measures have to be tailored to the districts, the specific facilities, and the communities.

But there are big and small things districts can do, Kurland and others said.

  • Create a safety team. This dedicated team should include principals, assistant principals, athletic directors, superintendents, and coaches, along with police, fire, and emergency management officials. The latter group already likely has training in risk assessment, and they can put those skills to use in helping the district develop tactical plans to prepare for and respond to different scenarios—from active-shooter situations to weather emergencies. That team will generally develop checklists, conduct risk-assessments of the facilities, and look for vulnerabilities at the sites. Responsibilities and roles should be clear to all members of the team. And the districts should also think about the special skills and certifications that members bring to the team, according to a best-practice guide developed by NCS4. In places where high school stadiums rival Division I sports facilities, even the power company should be involved in the teams, Kurland said. Adding a wide variety of stakeholders also means that the districts are not only thinking about securing the actual facility (the gymnasium or stadium, for example), but also what happens around it—like the parking lot and peripheral roads. "There is a real need to have everybody being on the same page so that plans can be developed," he said.
  • Control access to events. Make it more difficult and riskier for someone with bad intentions to act. One way to do that is by controlling access to the facilities. This can be accomplished by adding technological measures such as metal detectors at entryways, electronic door locks, and closed-circuit televisions. But districts that do not have the money to invest heavily in technology can use police officers, coaches, firefighters, emergency workers, or even trained volunteers to staff entryways and exits to enforce the restricted access policies. Best practices developed by NCS4 recommend no re-entry into the facility once someone leaves. Those policies should be communicated to the public before the event. "You make something more difficult, you require more energy, a greater likelihood of there being a risk involved...—this changes an offender's calculus in terms of how they are thinking," Kurland said.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Districts can create plans, but it's also important for the key players to know how those plans would actually work. Frequent run-throughs allow district officials and team members to become more familiar with the plans, identify holes, and reduce the chances that there will be mistakes when they are required to actually put those plans into effect, according to NCS4.
  • Communicate. Districts should have clear and reliable ways to communicate to the public what's allowed into stadiums and gymnasiums, and the rules that will be in effect once they are inside. If no backpacks are allowed inside, for example, the public should know ahead of time. Clearly visible signs should be posted outside of the premises to remind attendees of the rules and expectations even as they approach the entrances. Niehoff recommends that the host team meets with the visiting team to review rules and policies and ensure that they know who's in charge of the site, who to contact in an emergency, where emergency exits are located, and emergency phone numbers. Some schools provide that kind of critical information ahead of time to visiting teams, she said. Public announcers should also know how to give clear, calm evacuation directions if that becomes necessary, and they should repeat the rules and expectations—including expectations for good sportsmanship—before the events begin.
  • Train crowd supervisors. Train school staff, security personnel, or volunteers who will be serving as supervisors on how to supervise the crowd, said Kenneth Trump, a school safety expert, who works with school districts on safety measures. Supervisors should not be watching the games, Trump said. "They should be watching movements, groups, altercations, people who are being belligerent—for any signs of alcohol or drug use...," he said. "They shouldn't be able to tell you the score of the game; they should be able to tell you what's going on in the back stand."  
  • Use separate entrances. Districts should separate opposing teams, with separate entrances, locker rooms, concession stands, and seating areas.
  • Staff appropriately. Ensure staffing is appropriate for the expected number of people in attendance. The NCS4 recommends at least one staff member for every 250 attendees, but appropriate staffing levels should also be based on the history of those events, weather, and other risk factors. Trump recommends that districts use school police or officers who know the students and the district. Districts should also ensure that there are emergency medical professionals and first-aid units on hand. There should be enough staff to cover not just where the event is happening, but also the perimeter, such as the parking lots and side streets. Trained volunteers, including parents, may be appropriate at smaller events and locations, according to NCS4.  

In the Parkway School District in a St. Louis area suburb, Superintendent Keith Marty has been putting a number of similar steps in place since a late August incident where a gun was reportedly fired outside of a football "jamboree" at a district high school

School administrators already attend all home games, as well as the coaching staff, and district security—a combination of school resource officers and security guards who work in the district. Since the incident, the district plans to beef up law enforcement presence at football games.

It banned bags and backpacks (not including purses or bags needed for medical purposes) and barred those who leave the facility while the game is in progress from reentering, according to the new policies. 

"It's really a safety issue, not just around potential weapons, but it could be about drugs and other activities," Marty said. "We are trying to avoid the parking lot becoming another place of concern. One of our areas of emphasis is keeping our parking lot a place where people are not loitering. They are either at the game, or they are coming and going in their cars, but they are not loitering in the parking lot."

There will also be sharper observation of the crowd, by both administrators—who wear distinguishing apparel and are outfitted with walkie-talkies—and others deployed as supervisors. Attendees will also be asked to be more vigilant of their surroundings and report suspicious behaviors to those in authority.

District staff already participate in tabletop emergency exercises with county officials, Marty said. Those exercises take into account games, plays, concerts, and other special events, he said.

The district is also working with the police in the surrounding municipalities—Parkway school district includes eight municipalities as well as unincorporated parts of St. Louis County—to develop a more comprehensive safety plan, Marty said. The district communicated those security changes to the public before they were put into effect. 

So far, attendees seem to be taking the new polices in stride. The district, Marty said, is continually evaluating its safety protocols. 

"We try to learn from every situation that comes our way and review our protocols, procedures, and personnel that are available," he said. "We are really careful about how we communicate. We want to communicate with our families. But when we communicate with them, we want to be able to calm them [and] also assure them that we are putting some [safety measures] in place."

Photo: Officer Danijel Radanovic monitors a Theodore Roosevelt High School football game in San Antonio, Texas earlier this month. In the wake of the recent mass shootings in Texas, school districts are grappling with how to ensure school safety at off-campus functions. --Callaghan O'Hare for Education Week

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