School Climate & Safety

A School Safety Challenge: Keeping Crowds Secure Under the Glare of Friday Night Lights

By Evie Blad — October 27, 2022 5 min read
A police officer stands between rows of caution tape outside of a white high school football stadium that is brightly lit against the night sky.
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Most school safety discussions focus on what happens inside the building during class hours. But school and district leaders—coping with concerns about shootings and other violence—also face challenges keeping students and spectators safe during evening and weekend sporting events.

Activities like football games and track meets add complications to typical school safety plans: Attendees include spectators as well as students, access to facilities is often less controlled, and community violence sometimes spills onto the sidelines or into the parking lot.

“I think [district leaders] often think they can translate that daytime school safety plan to the after-school space,” said Brooke Graves, a senior tr]aining manager for the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at the University of Southern Mississippi. “From my talks with districts, those plans are just not translating.”

During the school day, students and staff are typically trained to respond quickly to calls for lockdowns. At athletic and after-school events, supervisors must plan for everything from a shooting to a chaotic crowd control situation with far less coordination than they may have during school hours. Attendees may not be aware of where to safely exit, open spaces create more opportunities for chaos, and spectators are less familiar to school officials than the students they see every day.

There have been six shootings during K-12 school sporting events since the start of the 2022-23 school year in August, according to Education Week’s school shooting tracker, which counts incidents in school facilities or parking lots where at least one person was injured by gunfire during a school-sponsored activity.

Among them, a 14-year-old high school football player was killed and four others were injured in a Sept. 27 shooting outside the gates of a scrimmage in Philadelphia.

In Tulsa, Okla., a 17-year-old student was killed and three others were wounded in a Sept. 30 shooting outside the stadium at the conclusion of a high school homecoming game.

Safety concerns for students, spectators, and athletes

Even non-fatal incidents—and those that occur off of school grounds—can create safety concerns for spectators inside.

In some cases, like a 2018 rival football game in Little Rock, Ark., panicked crowds have rushed to exit packed football stadiums at the mere rumor of gunshots, handing people over concrete walls and risking physical harm in the process.

A similar situation happened in Abbeville, La., Oct. 14. Minutes after the end of a high school football game, players shaking hands with opposing team members scrambled to run for cover or lie prone on the ground after hearing gunshots on a nearby street. While the shots weren’t on district property,video of the event shows screaming spectators running down bleachers, fearing that the gunfire might enter the stadium.

Police said one person on a nearby street was injured in the Abbeville shooting, and some vehicles parked nearby were damaged by gunfire.

“For some of the kids, that’s something they’ve never been a part of,” said Tommy Byler, superintendent of the Vermilion Parish district, which includes Abbeville. “For others, unfortunately, they may have heard gunshots before.”

The district, which had planned new security measures for sporting events prior to the incident, quickly put those new protocols in place afterward. To enter football games, everyone must now carry clear bags, high school students must present IDs to enter without adults, and spectators cannot reenter the game once they exit. School staff and volunteers also operate metal detectors at all entrances.

“It changed our mindset,” Byler said. “We have to take every measure we can to protect the participants inside the fence.”

While some Vermilion Parish schools had implemented “bits and pieces” of the security measures before, Byler sees value in a unified district policy. It will take some time to work through logistical issues and to create similar rules for basketball games and other events, Byler said.

The district had just one home game last week, the first week that the new policies were in place. Byler and several assistant superintendents helped run the metal detectors, troubleshooting ways to line people up and check them quickly.

In Tulsa, district leaders had also planned similar new security measures before the shooting near the September homecoming game, and many practices, like restricting reentry to games, were already in place.

Midweek “huddles,” during which Tulsa athletics officials and coaches coordinate logistics for home games, now include more security staff and building-level administrators, said Mick Wilson, the district’s executive director of activities and athletics.

“We want all of our places to be welcoming and feel like people can come in and enjoy the game and do so safely,” he said.

Districts adopt new rules for sporting events

Since the beginning of the school year, more schools and districts—in states including California, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland and Pennsylvania—have stationed metal detectors outside of stadiums and added new rules for student attendance.

Some school systems were motivated by concerns about weapons at events, some by nearby community violence, and some by disruptive behavior or heated arguments in the stands, local news reports show.

And more districts have created, evaluated, or enhanced their security plans for extracurricular events, said Graves, of the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security, which provides best practices and trainings for school districts.

While gun violence often gets the most attention, safety plans should also detail procedures for more common events like severe weather, unruly fans, and directing crowds to avoid the risk of trampling or injury, Graves said.

And school leaders should be concerned about smaller events, like elementary school concerts, in addition to larger activities like football games, she said.

“We plan for the nefarious,” Graves said. “We think active shooter, but we also have to think smaller, too.”


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