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School Sports Events Get Rocked by Rash of Recent Violent Crime

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The recent rash of school shootings--the latest in Pomona, Calif., last week--has not bypassed interscholastic sports.

Deadly gunfire that erupted outside a championship high school basketball game in Philadelphia earlier this semester was the most recent reminder that, despite schools' best attempts to protect students during organized sporting events, the combustible mix of raucous crowds, bitter rivalries, and sometimes, knives and guns, can take on a role larger than that of the game itself.

Consequently, school sports officials are again grappling with the issue of how to ensure student safety without depriving the student athletes and their well-behaved fans.

"Sports-related violence is a growing concern across the country, particularly at some championship and playoff games, which tend to draw a large and intense crowd," said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. "Most of the crowd behave as expected, but a few--those with little or no regard for the safety or well-being of others--view athletic games as an opportunity for disruption."

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

The Philadelphia incident, a drive-by shooting outside the University of Pennsylvania's Palestra Arena, took place just after the Public League--the city's school basketball league--title game between Benjamin Franklin High School and the Franklin Learning Center magnet school in March. Its wake left a 22-year-old man dead and three others wounded.

Although police have explained that the shooting was gang-related and involved neither of the high schools nor any basketball players, it left a mark on the league and left school administrators wondering what, if anything, they could have done to prevent it.

"This [shooting] was a street crime--the sort that unfortunately happen quite frequently in cities. It had nothing at all to do with the basketball league" and therefore, there was nothing the school system could do to prevent it, David W. Hornbeck, the superintendent of the 213,000-student Philadelphia district, said in an interview last week.

The extra precautions that the Public League has taken over the years--weeknight, rather than weekend, games; metal detectors at the doors; extra school and police supervision--have helped keep games safe, according to Mitchell Kurtz, the president of the Philadelphia Public League Basketball Coaches Association.

"We've never had a problem like this. We've never removed [any weapons] from anyone," he said. The March 1 game "was merely a convenient time and place for hangers-on looking for trouble.

"These players are better than good," he continued. "They work hard on the court and in school all season, and it's a real shame that the tragedy that occurred will take away from their" basketball memories, he said.

A Growing Concern

More and more schools nationwide, experts say, are searching for remedies in the aftermath of similar incidents.

The National School Safety Center, an organization that tracks school violence, has been working with administrators, sports officials, and law-enforcement authorities to help schools tailor games to meet their safety concerns. Friday-night games have been moved to Saturdays or weekdays, metal detectors have been installed, and police and police dogs are patrolling the courts, the stands, and school campuses, for example. In extreme cases, spectators are barred from games, Mr. Stephens said, and at a few schools, police helicopters fly overhead to patrol the perimeters of a venue to "send a message that police are vigilant."

"School officials and the community need to know what's going on, who's coming to the games, who the troublemakers are," Mr. Stephens said. "They need to create a reasonable level of protection and supervision for the players and the fans."

But in large schools, where the student-mobility rate is high, knowing the majority of game attendees and their motivations and character is not an option.

Ricky Evans, 15, was gunned down in a random, drive-by shooting a few blocks from his Los Angeles school as he and his friends walked home from a high school football playoff game last November. The fatality occurred despite administrators' best efforts to control the campus and see students off safely.

"We had adequate supervision at the game: four armed police officers and most of our school's teachers and administrators," said Joan Elam, the principal of the 4,000-student James Monroe High School, where Mr. Evans was a freshman. "We have a 35-acre campus that we keep secure. We stay outside the school until the last youngster heads home.

"It's a community issue. What else could we as a school have done?"

Fearing that something ugly might happen during or after a big game, some schools are canceling them altogether.

Such was the case this winter at a suburban Chicago school. Officials at Thornridge High School canceled a Friday-night boys' basketball game against district rival Thornwood High School only hours before tip-off.

"These are two highly competitive schools, and emotions were running very high. There had been some threats that something could happen," said Kathryn Rampke, the athletic director at Thornridge High. "As a result, we canceled the game and everyone suffered. We were criticized that we couldn't control the game, but really it's what goes on outside the game that's the problem.

"And however remote trouble after a game is, it will inevitably be linked to the school's athletic program."

The Thornridge-Thornwood game was rescheduled and went on without incident.

B. Elliott Hopkins, the assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania High School Association, the governing board for interscholastic sports, said that problems on the periphery of school campuses, which, as Ms. Rampke said, are often unrelated to the game itself, are a common concern.

"There's often not enough security outside of these games," he said, adding that canceling a game is the last possible option schools should consider. "We're telling member schools to work to keep a close eye to what's going on all around the schools. We want them working with local police to watch for drinking, drugs, mob mentality--any potential problems."

A Character Issue

Youth-violence experts say the best way to keep the peace is by teaching students how to manage their own anger and avoid conflicts.

"It's really a character issue," said John D. Heeney, the director of educational services for the Kansas City, Mo.-based National Federation of State High School Associations. "Young people need to learn to be better citizens. Sporting events conjure up intense emotions; it's being able to control them that's key."

But Art Taylor, a psychologist specializing in youth sports, noted that anger and intensity have always played a role in sports. What has raised the stakes, he said, is the presence of weapons.

"You can look back to Roman times. Crowds have always gotten fired up. The difference today is that kids are armed," said Mr. Taylor, the associate director for the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.

Like other youth-violence experts, he said schools should make attempts to stop problems before they start by getting and keeping weapons out of the hands of young people and teaching conflict-resolution techniques.

"Kids often don't see beyond flee or fight," he said.

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