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School Climate & Safety

How Gun Violence Is Changing Friday Night Football

By Arianna Prothero & Denisa R. Superville — September 23, 2019 10 min read
Police officer Jason Guel monitors the crowd during a Theodore Roosevelt High School football game in San Antonio, Texas. The North East Independent School District is using stricter security measures at school sporting events to increase safety and prevent violence.

San Antonio, Texas

There’s just enough of a breeze on a Friday night in mid-September to animate the U.S. and Texas flags standing sentry at Comalander Stadium on the outskirts of San Antonio. The wind carries relief from 95-degree heat, as well as sounds of the marching band warming up on the field, to the hundreds of patrons filing through metal detectors at the stadium’s entrance.

A few attendees—most here to see the home squad, the Roosevelt High School Rough Riders, take on the visiting Bulldogs from Alexander High School in Laredo—approach with clear plastic bags, but most come carrying only what fits in their pockets. In a routine that is standard at airports, government buildings, and professional sporting events, they dump their effects into plastic bins and walk through the metal detector. Workers in neon green shirts pull some people aside to swipe a wand up and down their sides.

To make sure no one gets into the stadium with a weapon, Karen Funk, the North East Independent School District’s athletic director, has taken a few pages from the playbook of pro sports stadiums. They are costly, but necessary, she said.

“We encourage our kids, our students, to be in extracurricular activities and we encourage our parents to let their students be in extracurricular activities,” said Funk. “So, when they come to us, as a teacher, as an athletic director, I want them to know: Your child is safe.”

In the opening weeks of this school year, at least seven shootings that have killed two people, including an 8-year-old girl, have occurred in or near stadiums filled with spectators watching high school football. One shooting—in a stadium in Mobile, Ala., last month—injured 11 people as the game was ending. Social media posts showed players taking cover on the field and attendees shielding themselves under bleachers.

Robert Meadows, a senior at Theodore Roosevelt High School in San Antonio, Texas, stands on the sidelines during a recent game.

Mass school shootings in Newtown, Conn., Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas—and the intense media coverage and political debates that surround them—have forced school districts to grapple with how best to protect students and staff inside buildings, during the hours of a traditional school day.

But shootings and other violence at school-sponsored events after hours and off campus, are often seen as a different kind of problem—one that emanates in communities and spills over and often involves people who aren’t students.

Extending safety measures—which can be costly—to these venues that can draw thousands of people is a blind spot for many school districts, even though violence at or near school-sponsored athletic events is not that unusual, said Kenneth Trump, a school security expert who works with districts. In some districts, there’s tension over whether athletic departments must pay for additional security, or whether it should come from the district’s general budget.

But more districts are waking up to idea that providing safety beyond school buildings is a complex issue that deserves the same deliberation and smart planning, he said.

The ‘New Norm’

Three years ago, North East ISD started using metal detectors at all sporting events. This past spring, the district began using metal detectors for graduation events. And this fall, it instituted a clear-bag policy.

Rash of Shootings at High School Games

When is a shooting at a high school football game or other school sporting event a school shooting? It’s a complicated call, as there’s no universal definition.

When shootings happen at athletic events, school and police officials often characterize them as “community violence” or neighborhood beefs that have spilled over into the school-related event.

Education Week tracks school shootings, counting incidents that meet a list of criteria that our team of journalists has carefully developed and revised through thoughtful consideration and vigorous debate. At times, what we count as a school shooting is not how it’s described by local authorities.

In 2018, we counted 24 school shootings, including the two mass events in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas. Of those two dozen incidents, six occurred during or just after a school-related sports event—four at football games. So far, in 2019, we have counted 18 school shootings. Eight of those took place during or just after school athletic events.

In the opening weeks of this school year, Education Week has included four shootings that occurred during or just after a football game because they meet ALL the criteria, which are:

  • A firearm was discharged;
  • At least one person, other than the suspect or perpetrator, had a bullet wound resulting from the incident;
  • The incident took place on K-12 school property or on a school bus; and,
  • The incident occurred while school was in session or during a school-sponsored event.

One incident earlier this month—which erupted outside the stadium gates in Jeanette, Pa., with four minutes left in the game—killed a 48-year-old man. A 40-year-old man has been arrested.

But there were other recent shootings we did not count, even though they took place near high school football games and caused fear and panic for those in attendance at the games.

One, in Atlanta, injured two boys near a stadium where two teams were scrimmaging. In response, the Atlanta district moved start times for football games to earlier in the day.

In another incident we did not count, an 8-year-old girl was killed and three others were injured by gunfire near a St. Louis high school hosting a football event for four teams. Social media posts showed hundreds of people screaming and fleeing the area around the stadium. And in the most recent incident, a shooting outside a Philadelphia stadium where two high school teams were playing injured two teenage boys, police said. The gunfire prompted spectators to flee the stadium and officials stopped the game, which was in the second quarter. School district officials said they would review security protocols for games.

While rampage-style shootings in school buildings are the big driver of safety debates and policy changes, violent incidents at school-sponsored events warrant the same level of attention.

To learn about the school shootings so far this year, see Education Week’s tracker.

Funk has been driving the new security initiatives.

She first started thinking about increasing security at athletic venues soon after the Texas legislature passed an open-carry law but while there was still confusion over where licensed gun owners could bring their firearms. (Guns are banned in schools and at school events except for certain personnel such as law enforcement.) In one instance, Funk said, a father, who had a permit, brought a gun into a stadium for an elementary school event. The episode, Funk said, prompted her to think about what the district could do to prevent a more-serious gun incident.

She worked with the district’s chief of police, Wally McCampbell, to install the metal detectors. So far, said McCampbell, the response from fans has been mostly positive.

“The very first [time] that we instituted the metal detectors was our biggest game of the year,” he said, with over 9,000 spectators. “We had crowds lined up for as far as you can see, and we did not have one, not a single negative comment, about the wait to go through, about having their bags checked. I hate to use the term, but it’s the ‘new norm.’ ”

McCampbell and Funk stood together as kick-off neared for the Roosevelt vs. Alexander game, watching as patrons flowed through the metal detectors. (They even sent an Education Week reporter through with her prohibited black tote bag to see how screeners would react.)

Mike Sutton, a spectator who went to high school at Roosevelt and still attends nearly every home game, said the more-stringent security rules and screenings don’t bother him.

“I want to come in and go out the same way,” he said. “To make it back home is a blessing. Nowadays, you see so much in the news, someone goes to church and they don’t get to come home. You go to the store and you don’t get to come home. To have security at this level, I’m really a fan of it.”

Keith Marty, superintendent of the Parkway school district in suburban St. Louis, laments that high school traditions like the Friday night football game have become security risks.

Last month, as his district hosted a football “jamboree” for eight schools in the region, reports of gunfire outside of one high school stadium had people fleeing in panic. No one was injured. But the same night, in the vicinity of a football event with other local schools, a shooting killed an 8-year-old girl and injured three others.

The district has since tightened safety procedures, including adding more security, at sporting events, Marty said. Officials are also considering discontinuing hosting the jamboree because of the high risk, he said.

“I am a big fan of these kinds of activities because I think they create a good environment for kids outside of the school day,” Marty said. “So it saddens me that we would have to consider a time when we won’t allow, let’s say, spectators to go to games, or reduce the number. Because I think it’s just such a great atmosphere and it builds such great community.”

A spectator’s clear backpack in the stands is one obvious sign of tighter security that the North East Independent School District has adopted to boost safety.

Superintendents in the region—St. Louis has one of the highest rates of gun violence of any major city—are trying to address community violence that may spill into schools or spaces where their students spend time.

“It’s a very difficult discussion sometimes because it gets involved in politics, unfortunately,” Marty said of gun violence. “We are trying to emphasize how vitally important it is that we talk to our students [and] we talk about their safety. I don’t know what our role is quite honestly beyond that, but I think we do have to emphasize to our government and political leaders that we are impacted.”

Safety in Big Venues

The dynamics of football games and their outdoor venues make security more challenging to manage than indoor spaces, like gyms. Football games also tend to draw large crowds.

“In many of these communities, high school football games will draw thousands, in some cases tens of thousands [of people] in smaller communities because it is the only sports entertainment and the biggest game in town,” said Trump.

That’s why districts need to be strategic. They shouldn’t wait until the middle of the week to contact the local police to ask for additional officers to be at the game.

“Certainly security and police staffing are one piece of the puzzle, but there are many elements that you take into consideration,” Trump said.

Among them:

  • Ticket sales: Who can and cannot buy tickets?
  • Entering and exiting: Once patrons enter, can they leave? What’s the procedure for re-entry?
  • Screening: Will there be metal detectors or X-ray scans at the entrance? Are bags allowed? What about purses, wallets, backpacks and coolers?
  • Rivalry: Do teams have a history of rivalry? Were there incidents at past meetings?
  • Communication: Are announcers trained to give evacuation directions? Is there signage pointing people to exits?

The Tulsa, Okla., district is asking and answering those questions and has hammered out plans to prevent violence—a necessity after a shooting at a football game three years ago.

In that incident, a 13-year-old boy was injured when he was shot by another student in the temple with three minutes left in the last quarter. The shooter allegedly hid the gun under the bleachers before the game started, said Gil Cloud, the executive director of athletics in the Tulsa district.

That shooting forced Tulsa to change its security procedures for sporting events, which can draw up to 5,000 spectators, depending on the team and the sport. Each August, the district’s 19 athletic directors and members of the police force have a planning meeting to review and revise safety procedures for athletic events, including assigning officers to all events ahead of time. The team works through a variety of safety scenarios and how to respond—from shootings to tornados.

Police officer Carlos Zamora closely watches the crowd during Roosevelt’s home game.

Campus police now conduct security sweeps of all the gymnasiums and stadiums 90 minutes before the start of the game. The stadiums and gymnasiums are equipped with cameras that can track who enters and leaves. Each high school event is staffed with a minimum of six officers from the district’s own police department. (Junior varsity and junior high school events have at least four officers.)

If the event is expected to have a huge turnout, like homecoming or playoffs, or if it’s two schools with a history of rivalry, two to four more officers are added, Cloud said.

The district police chief also contacts local police, including gang and drug task forces, to ask about brewing tensions and if an upcoming event needs additional police presence.

The athletic directors talk with school administrators to see if there are student disciplinary issues that might spill over into the games.

Tulsa also limits who can attend games, a change it adopted after discovering that students who didn’t attend the schools playing in a game were often the source of trouble.

If two schools are playing, only students from those schools are allowed to enter the stadium. Parents can attend, and students who are not enrolled in either of the schools can only attend with an adult.

Social media has made security at events more complicated too. Officials may know about more threats, anticipate potential conflict, and add extra staffing if necessary. But it also means that officials are spending a lot of time investigating what people say online.

And the district is still adapting, Cloud said. Earlier this month, a police officer patrolling the outside of a high school stadium arrested four people, including one with a gun, before they made their way inside for a football game. Since then, security officials have begun conducting random bag checks and using metal-detecting wands as people enter facilities.

“I think that it is incumbent upon us to ensure that not only our students are safe, but that our patrons are safe,” Cloud said. “And with the availability of firearms today on the open market, anybody could just about own a gun … “

Still, Cloud said, even with robust measures to prevent violence, nothing is foolproof. Districts must be ready to react if something does happen.

“What we have to do then is to know what our reaction would be if in fact something like that does occur,” he said. “What our emergency plan is and where we evacuate people to, and what we do if you have an active shooter on the ground.”

Easing the Security Process

To make screening run smoothly, Funk said she prepares visiting teams and their fans to expect the additional security measures.

North East ISD sends bulletins to schools they’re scheduled to play ahead of time detailing security measures the team and fans may not be familiar with, and the district posts signs at its stadiums explaining what is—and isn’t—allowed inside before patrons get to the metal detectors.

For busy games, North East ISD uses an express lane for fans who come in with nothing but what’s in their pockets.

A girl picks up her belongings after going through a metal detector before the Roosevelt High game, one of several security measures used at athletic events to help prevent violence.

Guns have always been a part of the culture here, but Funk said the difference between her years in high school in the 1970s and the mass shooting era of now is stark.

“There isn’t a person who is over 45 growing up in Texas, even in metropolitan areas, who didn’t have trucks in the high school parking with a gun rack in ‘em because every boy went hunting in the fall,” said Funk.

“It wasn’t ‘quote’ the killing machine that it was today. The philosophy has very much changed.”

But some traditions haven’t changed.

The September Texas sky transitions from pastel blue to pink. A full, yellow moon glows behind the storied Friday night stadium lights that shine down on a tumble of helmeted boys in red, white, blue, and gold.

Cheerleaders, with perky white bows in their hair and glitter on their faces, chant “Stomp and scream for the Rider team!”

The cheering of the crowd picks up and builds momentum as the players charge down the field to score a touchdown for the home team.

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 2019 edition of Education Week as Sports Events Pose Risks for Violence

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