Mike Blackburn doesn’t mince words when describing the most urgent topic in interscholastic athletics today. That subject is – without a doubt – afterschool safety and security. Communication and organization are simply not optional for school leaders – they are essential ingredients.
“It is key to student-athletes, spectators, athletic administrators, educational leaders of schools and school districts as well as our way of life that includes school-based athletic programs,” said Blackburn, CMAA, executive director of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA), which is based in Indianapolis and has a membership of more than 11,000 athletic administrators. “It is an issue not only at athletic events, but also practice sessions.”
Violence continues to be a reality not only in schools, but also across the country overall. According to USA Today, there have been 307 mass shootings in America as of November 8, and there have been 65 school shootings on school campuses as of October 4.
There were nine gun-related incidents the first three weeks of the high school football season around the nation, according to Jay Hammes, president of Safe Sport Zone, a Wisconsin-based organization that provides safety training to help high school administrators make athletic events safer and more enjoyable.
The first step in taking measures to plan, manage, prepare and supervise for safety is to recognize the potential risk at every venue at every school, Blackburn said. High school sports events are considered soft targets.
“School administrators need to be aware of what is going on at all times – in the game, in the stands, in the common areas,” said Scott Kaufman, athletic director at West Chester (Ohio) Lakota West High School. “I wish we could just be a ‘fan’ at games, but I can’t. We troubleshoot and intervene before things escalate.”
Jasper Jewell, the director of athletics for Atlanta Public Schools, said all school resource officers within the district travel with the football and basketball teams on the road. The district has 14 to 18 school resource officers at each football game. Moreover, the district does not allow bags into a stadium at any time.
“We have increased the number of security officers from around 12 to 18,” Jewell said. “We also have cars that rove the parking lot area on the home and visitors’ sides. Our biggest challenge is scanning patrons as they enter the stadium to ensure they do not have anything in their pockets, etc.”
Kaufman said because there are fewer people in the area during practices, one would think that it would be easier, but it can be a greater challenge.
“Coaches need to be aware of what is going on around them,” Kaufman said. “In addition to coaching their kids, they need to be aware of people who do not belong. Athletes need to be aware and inform coaches when someone is around who does not belong. It is a team effort.”
Bobby Cox, commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association, said his state association encourages member schools to review their emergency plans seasonally and also evaluate specific venue considerations. He said the discussion between parents, students and community leaders is critical.
“If you see something, say something,” Cox said. “Ensure you have protocols established at your events. Work with local law enforcement to execute these procedures.”
Wyoming (Ohio) High School Athletic Director Jan Wilking said working with law enforcement has been key.
“Five or ten years ago we were not talking about active shooter exit plans for high school stadiums on a regular basis or reviewing emergency procedures at preseason coaches’ meetings,” Wilking said. “Security is one of the biggest challenges for high school athletic administrators. It is important that we all seek to learn from and get guidance from the industry professionals.”
Kaufman said in his 27 years as an athletic administrator, there has always been a police presence at significant events. The attention to security at everything else has become a greater focus every season. Lakota West has a game management plan and an emergency action plan. The school’s athletic department also discusses potential security issues before they arise.
“We look at the schedule to determine possible ‘issue’ games and staff accordingly,” he said. “Then everything else we fill in as best we can.”
Resources are always limited in high school athletics – whether it is staffing or the financial means to cover all bases. It’s important to have a collective group effort.
“The only way to optimize supervision is to enable the parents of the young people to help,” said Elliot Hopkins, director of sports, sanctioning and student services at the NFHS.
Hammes said having built-in incentives within a school staff for security purposes is paramount. The goal is to exercise the plans that are drafted once the assessments are completed.
“I think that’s another breakdown I see across the country,” Hammes said. “Athletic administrators are having a tough time getting people to work games that are in the building and have a built-in relationship with the students. That’s an important thing.”
Having school officials and law enforcement do visual searches including mounting a HD-camera on a tripod can be an effective method as fans enter a venue. Security, like technology, is ever-changing. Having enough people to watch fans enter that particular game or event is very significant.
“I go around this country and fly about 60,000 miles a year training schools and school officials,” Hammes said. “I just don’t see that happening. People are walking right in. And no one is watching who is coming in. My goodness. Somebody could come in with an AR-15 (rifle).”
Hammes said most schools don’t have a weapons problem. Instead, it’s about correcting behavior.
Often, the youth sport fan base has no structure. So Hammes says it’s important to get back to the core of youth athletics with clear guidelines for fan behavior.
“Fans have to re-wire their brain in high school as to what is expected,” Hammes said.
Kaufman said athletic administrators can make a conscious effort to educate parents and student-athletes about appropriate behaviors at games.
“I think what we need to do is go back to the core that attending educational-based athletics is a privilege similar to participating is a privilege,” Hammes said.
Julian Tackett, commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, agrees.
“It would be easy to envision a disgruntled person coming to practice and a situation escalating,” Tackett said. “Who gets to attend practice is really no longer a competition and competitive advantage question but needs to be an access question. As coaches and administrators, we are entrusted with a parent’s most trusted resource, their child. We cannot forget that.”
While school security is a $2.7 billion market, according to The Washington Post, high school administrators often find that finances are at the top of the list when it comes to the greatest challenges.
Tackett says the KHSAA state basketball tournament checks all patrons with magnetometers as a method to search for weapons. He said that is more than $10,000 for the event and could rise to $25,000 with the next level of scrutiny.
“Cost is an issue for sure,” Tackett said. “In addition, local law enforcement authorities are no longer, in many areas, providing services to schools at no cost. It has become a competitive business. In some cases, it is a power struggle.”
Tackett said school administrators have to break the mindset that because someone paid for a ticket, they can say and do what they want.
“We absolutely have to control the atmosphere,” Tackett said. “What fans and groups of fans do and say at contests can so quickly get out of control. It isn’t just an officiating deterrent or ‘kids will be kids.’ We as the adults have to stay in charge of the venue. That is not just in controlling who pays and who gets in, but what goes on.”
Mike Dyer is the High School Sports Insider for WCPO-TV in Cincinnati. He’s covered high school sports in Greater Cincinnati since 2004 and in Ohio overall since 2000.