As Midlothian ISD began gearing up for the start of the school year and high school football season, athletic director Todd York decided it was time for a change.
The threat of gun violence has loomed over school communities around the nation for decades now, but when the 19 Robb Elementary School students and two teachers were killed in Uvalde at the end of the last school year, Dallas-area school leaders like York felt that terrifying threat was closer than ever.
“We live with that now on a daily basis,” he said.
A recent shooting at a Dallas-area youth football game has also heightened awareness and prompted changes in leagues searching for ways to curb violence in sporting events.
With football games returning as one of the first mass gatherings of the school year, Midlothian ISD wanted to bolster its security policies. While it already had at least six security guards at every football game, it added a clear bag policy for all sporting events at the high school and middle school levels.
“It is something that we talked about for years,” York said. “Some of our area schools that we go to, like Dallas and Lancaster, already have one. We thought that with the Uvalde situation, this was a good time to go ahead and ... institute it.”
In the wake of Uvalde, school administrators around the state are continuing to reevaluate their in-school and extracurricular security policies and institute new ones — doing whatever they can to control the uncontrollable.
“It made everyone go back to the drawing board in terms of just assessing everything that we do,” Grand Prairie ISD athletic director Troy Mathieu said. “It just made everybody double back and refocus on the importance of not leaving anything to chance.”
Midlothian ISD was one of six Dallas-area school districts with 6A and 5A football programs to report a change in stadium security policy as a direct result of Uvalde. Of the 41 North Texas districts that responded to The Dallas Morning News’ requests for stadium safety policies, Dallas ISD, Corsicana ISD, Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, Princeton ISD, Red Oak ISD, and Midlothian ISD were the ones that made a change this offseason.
The game experience may look different at these stadiums this fall, but many districts haven’t yet taken action as they weigh the tradeoffs between financial and security needs.
High school football in Texas plays host to crowds of 10,000 and fan bases akin to college and professional teams, but its security measures often don’t meet those same standards. While the likelihood of a mass shooting at a sporting event is still extremely low, security experts say some districts’ policies aren’t as effective as they could be, especially as guns are making their way into stadiums more frequently.
The Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security reported that about 10 percent of all school shootings took place at sporting events, many of which have resulted from fan flare-ups. Since 1973, there have been 213 sports-related school shootings nationwide. Half of those have been in the last five years.
Security experts praise school districts for having these conversations and revising their security measures, but they urge them to be more proactive by instituting the recommended policies, so their reactive protocols never have to come into play.
“There’s a lot more to having a secure athletic event today than just simply calling for a couple of off-duty police officers a few days before,” said Ken Trump, the President of National School Safety and Security Services, a firm that trains and consults with schools to assess crisis and security preparedness.
A price to pay
While 29 of the 41 districts said they have clear- or small-bag policies in place, according to Trump, those protocols aren’t sufficient to prevent a disaster from occurring.
“The clear backpacks are security theater,” he said. “The reality is if somebody wanted to get something in through that bag, they could probably still conceal it, and they’re probably not going to do very thorough searches of those items.
“That tends to be more for perception than actually being a major step toward anything that’s going to have a meaningful impact.”
[Emergency response measures like lockdown drills and how to survive an active shooter incident] may save lives, but it’s a last ditch effort after you’ve already got the armed intruder in your building. That’s too late.
Trump said the majority of fans who have brought weapons into stadiums have done so on their person, rather than in a bag. However, only 16 of the 41 districts said they have invested in metal detectors or wands for football games.
“When it comes to safety and security, it’s a layered process,” said Dallas ISD Chief of Police John Lawton. “There’s no one panacea, not one thing that works. So if you have clear-bag policies in conjunction with the metal detection in conjunction with checking your doors, that provides more safety and security for our district as a whole.”
Nine districts told The News they do not yet require either, many of which pointed to a robust police presence as a means of prevention instead.
While well-trained and vigilant staff can sniff out a potential disaster, Trump said most of the incidents he’s seen result from some sort of human error. Security guards have to be conscious of entry and exit points, danger zones within the stadium, rivalries between the teams, conflicts between the communities, evacuation plans, and much more to maintain proper security.
Unless these officers are paying perfect attention at all times, it’s possible for someone to slip through the cracks.
Peter Langman, a psychologist who studies the behaviors and psychology of school shooters, said the focus on these reactive measures is a nationwide problem.
“There’s emergency response measures like lockdown drills and how to survive an active shooter incident, but those response measures are reactive, not proactive,” Langman said. “They may save lives, but it’s a last ditch effort after you’ve already got the armed intruder in your building. That’s too late.”
If you want to be safety conscious, and you want to upgrade things, there is a cost to it, but to me, I don’t feel you can put a cost on someone’s life.
A handful of districts around North Texas have consulted with security experts to beef up their protocols as gun violence rates increase nationwide.
Texas has seen nine acts of gun violence at school sporting events since 2018, according to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security. There were 14 shootings at high school football games nationwide last season.
Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD, which has six metal detectors at football games as well as a clear-bag policy and police on site, said it was advised by the security consulting company True North to add the additional equipment four years ago.
“We just felt it was a good added security measure to have them, especially at larger events, such as a varsity football game that draws in 8,000 to 10,000 people,” athletic director Renee Putter said.
Not every district has as easy of a time adopting change.
Putter said the district paid about $1,400 per metal detector at Standridge Stadium. She said the district has two on each side, one in the interior and a backup. Trump said long-term labor to run the machines causes an even bigger dent in districts’ pockets, paired with the challenge of getting the community to comply.
But in a life-or-death situation, Putter said all those hurdles are absolutely worth it.
“Just like if you’re going to eat healthy, the healthiest foods are expensive,” she said. “If you want to be safety conscious, and you want to upgrade things, there is a cost to it, but to me, I don’t feel you can put a cost on someone’s life.”
Prepare, don’t panic
Beyond the thousands of people gathered in a single place, security experts say sporting events pose additional threats because of the high stakes.
Lawton, the Dallas ISD police chief, said the biggest challenge the district faces at games is disagreements between fans, usually stemming from game action or pre-existing rivalries.
The shooting of Mike Hickmon in Lancaster on Aug. 13 was a prime example. Yaqub Salik Talib is accused of shooting the 43-year-old Hickmon after an argument over a youth football game turned deadly when the fight escalated.
In response to the shooting, the Big XII Youth League and Family Services football league imposed a new set of leaguewide guidelines effective immediately. These guidelines prohibit men from having bags of any kind, require police officers and metal detectors at all fields and limit women and girls to carrying only clear bags.
DISD has had success preventing these incidents by distancing home and away fans on opposite sides of the stadium, Lawton said. Some districts have those fans enter from completely separate entrances so that they never interact.
“You may have some animosity that bleeds over from the community,” Lawton said. “There may be people you don’t even know, so we keep them separated so there’s less likely a chance that things will happen.”
When emotions run high, security experts say behavior can’t always be predicted, leaving athletic directors and staff tasked with the difficult responsibility of preparing for all scenarios.
“We are dealing with irrational acts with rational processes, and that is a difficult thing for any entity to deal with,” said Rockwall ISD athletic director Russ Reeves. “We are employing all resources at our disposal to try to be as prepared as possible.”
While experts who have worked with schools stress the importance of augmenting their policies, they also emphasize that these tragedies are still rare events. There are 55 million school children in the United States, and on average, 10 students per year are killed by gunfire at school, according to a Northeastern University study.
“As much as it may seem like it’s happening every day, it’s not,” Langman, the psychologist, said. “What happens is a few high-profile events, like Uvalde, really skews our perception as a nation regarding how dangerous school is. One of my messages is to prepare, but don’t panic.”
Even for the districts that don’t have all the recommended policies in place, or for those that haven’t made any changes since Uvalde, their leadership agreed that conversations are constantly being had and that additional protocols could be coming.
While school districts in Texas may not have the ability to influence state or national gun laws, administrators around North Texas said they’ll continue to do whatever it takes to keep classrooms and football games, alike, safe.
“I think people really welcome the idea of entering a place that they feel safe and secure even if it’s inconvenient for them to empty their pocket or open up their purse or have to have a clear bag instead of their big old luxurious bag,” Putter said. “I think in the long run, they feel secure that someone’s looking out for them.”
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