School Climate & Safety

Shootings at School Sports Events Raise Anxiety Levels

By Evie Blad — September 04, 2018 5 min read
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After shots rang out at a high school football game in Florida last month, law-enforcement authorities quickly concerned themselves with how the public characterized the event.

“This is not a school shooting,” said Teri Barbera, a spokeswoman for the Palm Beach County sheriff’s office, the Sun Sentinel reported. Perhaps she wanted to ensure the event didn’t stir up visions of the mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Fla., in February.

Spectators, including many students and school staff members attending the event in Wellington, panicked at the sound of gunfire and rushed to evacuate the stadium after police said two gunmen outside the venue shot and injured two men in what appeared to be a “targeted act of violence.”

“This was not a random act of violence and had no bearing on the Palm Beach Central or William T. Dwyer High Schools, students, faculty, and/or staff,” Barbera said, referring to the two schools gathered for a preseason football game.

How educators, policymakers, and the public at large classify shootings like the one that Friday night—along with two other fatal shootings at or near high school football games in Jacksonville, Fla., and Fairfield, Calif., in recent weeks—matters, because what’s considered a “school shooting” affects larger school safety debates and the policy changes that result from them.

See Also: School Shootings This Year: How Many and Where

But it’s hard to argue that the Palm Beach County incident had “no bearing” on the schools involved. Social media posts show hundreds of students fleeing in fear. The district cancelled athletic events afterward and plans new security procedures at its games.

Narrowly Focused Conversations

Students around Florida have been on edge since the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the Broward County school district, which neighbors Palm Beach County. In that context, law-enforcement and school officials have an interest in clarifying that the event outside the football stadium was not intended to be a random, rampage shooting that many people picture when they think of a “school shooting.”

Those types of attacks are at the center of many discussions of school safety. Witnesses appearing before the post-Parkland federal safety commission chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, for example, have focused most of their discussions on large attacks that happen inside school buildings during the school day. They’ve mentioned smoke cannons that can be deployed in hallways to confuse mass shooters, armed teachers who could quickly respond to classroom attacks, and other ways to “harden schools.”

Few witnesses have discussed how schools should respond if a gunman opens fire on a school playground, which happened in Townville, S.C., in 2016, or if safety concerns emerge in school parking lots or at outdoor sporting events. In those situations, school personnel must rely more heavily on smart procedures and preparation than on costly equipment, safety experts say.

School safety debates often leave out after-school programs and athletics, said Lou Marciani, the director of the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at the University of Southern Mississippi. “People have been very myopic about only looking at the school day,” Marciani said.

At athletic events where large numbers of people gather in a relatively small space, schools should be concerned about training all staff and volunteers about emergency plans, coordinating with law enforcement, and preparing for crowd control in response to such events as shootings, fights, or severe weather, say the center’s best practices for interscholastic sports safety, which were created in consultation with school administrators around the country. Those guidelines recommend having at least one staff member for every 250 spectators and strategies to communicate with large crowds of people, even using megaphones to direct them.

What Counts as a School Shooting?

So was the Florida shooting during the football game in Palm Beach County a school shooting? Answering that question is more complicated than it may seem at first.

Education Week included the event in its school shooting tracker because it meets all the criteria, which refer to incidents:

  • Where a firearm was discharged;
  • Where an individual, other than the suspect or perpetrator, has a bullet wound resulting from the incident;
  • That happen on K-12 school property or on a school bus; and
  • That occur while school is in session or during a school-sponsored event.

So far, the analysis shows there have been 17 school shootings in 2018.

Several organizations track school shootings, using varying criteria. Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that advocates more-restrictive gun laws, includes in its count any incident in which “a firearm discharges a live round inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds,” including on the campuses of colleges and universities. Other organizations only track mass shootings. Those lists omit many school shootings that don’t meet the minimum threshold for injuries and deaths.

What matters most is that the criteria are clear and consistent. Every tracker will likely include some incidents that many people wouldn’t envision when they hear the term “school shooting,” and some incidents will be excluded.

For example, Education Week‘s count doesn’t include suicides. That’s not because suicides aren’t a serious concern for schools. Rather, it’s because there are some distinctly different safety and prevention considerations for incidents involving self-inflicted wounds and fatalities.

On the other hand, Education Week does count some incidents others might not, such as a shooting in a Pennsylvania high school parking lot during a basketball game that didn’t involve students or staff. The justification? Even shootings that aren’t targeted at students affect them. And the presence of an unauthorized gun in a school or at a school event raises questions about safety procedures.

The conversation matters because “school shootings” are more likely to look like a small, targeted event than a mass attack such as what happened in Parkland. And the public’s understanding shapes policy decisions and priorities.

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 2018 edition of Education Week as Shootings at School Sports Events Raise Anxiety Levels

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