At a time when violence is happening more often in the United States, mass shootings have become normal and divisions have become more heated, schools are spending a lot of time discussing safety and security.
We have seen a number of school shootings in the United States this year and over the past few decades. The shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, showed how devastating consequences failure to follow policies and procedures can have. We have also seen mass shootings at parades, grocery stores, movie theaters, malls, places of worship, clubs and office buildings.
Other shootings that are not high profile mass shootings are also on the rise in many places across the country. The trend includes North Carolina. Durham City has reported nearly 400 shootings so far this year as of August 11. In Raleigh, there have been 26 homicides this year, compared to 19 during the same period in 2021.
We’ve also seen officials assaulted at sporting events, including some videos that have gone viral on social media.
There are a growing number of safety and security considerations for schools to take into account, but it is not limited to the school day. Athletics takes place after school, and community members come to campus to attend these events. On Wednesday, members of the NC Athletic Directors Association gathered for a virtual training session on safety and security at high school athletic events where they discussed some of the issues and best practices. Jay Hammes, president of Safe Sport Zone, led the discussion.
Hammes was a high school athletic director in Wisconsin when he attended a sporting event on the road. When he left school, shots were fired and narrowly missed him. Since then, Hammes has been an advocate for sports safety.
Every school in North Carolina is required to have an emergency action plan for situations such as medical emergencies and severe weather. However, Hammes says plans are often too long for people to understand, and when the emergency actually happens, people forget the plan and fall back on their instincts.
“When the bullets were fired, do you think I was thinking about my plans of action?” he said. “No, absolutely not. When things get hot, plans evaporate. Instincts take over. Instincts come from practice, practice, practice.”
Hammes said having everyone involved in game-day operations practicing contingency plans is critical – from school administrators to coaches and all event workers. This preparation allows them to react instinctively to situations that arise, and we have seen these situations happen in North Carolina.
Just last week, the Salisbury High School vs. West Rowan High School football game ended early after an unidentified woman allegedly shouted about a gunman, sparking a rush exit. Three people were injured in the stampede, according to The Salisbury Post. It came after a social media post said a shooting would occur near the game, police said. Some witnesses claimed to have heard gunshots, but police found no evidence that shots were fired, according to the newspaper report.
In September 2021, multiple shots were fired during the football game between Chambers High School and Glenn High School in Charlotte. No one was injured, but the rush of people trying to evacuate the stadium was seen live on HighSchoolOT. In October 2021, two teenagers were shot dead after a football game at Seventy-First High School, and another teenager was shot dead in the parking lot of Durham County Stadium after a game between Northern Durham High School and Riverside High School.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘How will this be in five years?'” Hammes said. “It has to be practiced consistently, like our fire drills. We have our fire drills. But we have more school shootings than fires.”
Prevention is key
The best way to keep people safe at high school sporting events is to prevent an emergency from happening all together, Hammes said. He outlined a number of best practices that schools can implement.
“Prevent, prevent, prevent is the name of the game today,” Hammes said. “But you can’t be 100% secure. If somebody really wants to do something, they will do it.”
Hammes’ company teaches a practice it calls “active supervision.” This requires everyone working on the event to be trained to supervise the crowd as they enter the facility, the stands, and everywhere in between.
A recommendation from Hammes is to buy a portable metal detector for the door. It’s best used on spectators as they enter the facility, but simply displaying it at the door can be a deterrent, he said.
The door is an important place for surveillance. Hammes said scanning the door as people enter can alert event staff to potential problems, so having administrators or law enforcement at the door is essential.
“People detectors are sometimes better than metal detectors,” Hammes said. “They shouldn’t be looking for physical characteristics, that’s profiling and if they’re doing that you should get them out of there. But look for things like people walking in with their hands in their pockets and watching their eyes. S ‘They’re scanning you or looking for witnesses, or ways out, or officers, that’s something to watch out for.’
If schools are going to use metal detectors, Hammes said having law enforcement officers flanking the metal detector is helpful because they’re good at looking for suspicious activity. He said it’s also important to look for things that are out of place, like someone wearing a jacket when it’s hot outside.
Active shooters and people with guns aren’t the only safety and security issues that exist at high school sporting events. Spectators can cause safety issues when they lose control of their behavior in anger or when they storm the pitch in celebration.
Last December, pepper spray was used to break up a fan fight at the John Wall Holiday Invitational, ending the tournament for the night at Wake Technical Community College’s Northern Wake campus. A fight between fans of Farmville Central High School and Life Christian Academy in Kissimmee, Fla. spilled onto the field midway through the game. The fight followed an on-court fight in the previous match, which had already strained security, a tournament spokesperson said at the time.
Also last December, two high school students were shot dead during a basketball tournament at Catawba College in Salisbury. The shooting caused the campus to be locked down.
Managing spectator conduct is another important way to prevent safety issues at high school events, and Hammes says it starts with having enough people working on the event to oversee the number of spectators attending.
“If we could learn to actively monitor our events, we could reduce the problems almost to the point where you have one or two incidents every three or four years,” he said.
Hammes said event workers should be assigned a section to watch. Every few minutes, an event attendant should scan this section for people who look agitated or angry, have loud voices, or yell at the referee or coach. When a person is identified, note what they are wearing, not what they look like. Hammes said what they’re wearing is called pattern matching recognition, so the next time someone scans that section, it’ll be easier to identify that person.
“Every time I turn around, I’m going to focus on that person and look at them,” Hammes said. “You can defuse a person’s anger just by looking at them. They know you’re looking at them.”
Hammes said nonverbal communication, like shaking your head or motioning to calm down, can be effective. Positioning yourself to stand or sit close to the person can also be effective.
“If the person continues their behavior, you will have to address it. We have to have the courage to stand up and do it,” he said, noting that it should be done with compassion and empathy, not anger. The main thing is to defuse the situation.
“If you’re not calm, you can’t defuse. Be patient,” Hammes said. “If you see a conversation with another event worker getting heated, go help them. Step in and help de-escalate because once they get heated, they can’t de-escalate.”
NC works to prepare schools
NCADA is a professional organization for athletic administrators in North Carolina, and one of its primary responsibilities is to provide training and resources for athletic directors in the state. The virtual session with Hammes was part of that education process, but it won’t stop there. In 2023, NCADA plans to offer safe sport certification courses to its members.
“As parents we expect to drop our kids off at the game and pick them up again, that they had a great experience and that they were safe the whole time, so our intention in doing this type of interactive workshops and webinars is to provide those insights and best practices to our athletic directors,” said NCADA Executive Director Roy Turner. “We’re just trying to be in a proactive position.”
Turner said athletic directors in North Carolina are already paying more attention to environments. He said that when there are rumors about something that might happen at a sporting event, those rumors are taken very seriously and not ignored.
“I think we get a heightened sense of intentionality where we start to be more proactive,” he said.
Many schools have transitioned to using digital tickets since the COVID-19 pandemic, and digital tickets provide schools with a better ability to identify who is coming to an event. Some school districts have clear bag policies in place, others use magnetometers and metal detectors at the door. Schools are also investing in signage to help communicate fair play policies and expectations, and some schools post QR codes that allow people to anonymously report a report of violence or threats.
“I think we all want to make sure … that every child has the opportunity to experience (educational athletics) in the future and learn the life skills that we were able to learn, that we took away from that. “, says Turner.
Keeping events safe will be integral to the future viability of high school athletics for kids, and today that means preparing for — and hopefully preventing — acts of violence at events.
“It’s really sad that kids today have to go to school and care, but that’s the new world,” Hammes said.