Athletic directors strive to keep the peace at sporting events.
Forget for a moment that the Rev. Jesse Jackson even got involved in the case of six African-American students in Decatur, Ill., who were expelled for starting a fight at a Friday night football game in September. And pretend that the whole incident never turned into a hot-button racial issue.
The mere fact that the Decatur School Board, enforcing its zero-tolerance policy against violence, kicked those students out of its schools has set off a flurry of controversy, putting athletic administrators' crowd-control policies under a microscope.
Granted, weapons reportedly didn't play a role in the Decatur incident, and students have been fighting in the stands at football games for decades. The tools of the trade, however, have become significantly more lethal. Knives and nunchaku have been replaced by semiautomatic rifles as the weapons of choice among teenagers. And last April's Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., delivered a shattering wake-up call not only for educators at other schools, but also for athletic directors.
"Like a lot of guys in my position right now, I'm realizing that athletic events are prime sites for anybody who is a bit off-center or who has a score to settle," says Larry Parker, athletic director at Lincoln (Neb.) High School. "We have future generations who rely on us to make things right. And if we want athletics to continue in a positive mode, we're going to have to step up and make some changes."
To that end, the Nebraska State Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association has asked the state's activities association to implement a sportsmanship policy that would remove from a game offending fans, players and coaches without warning.
Elsewhere, school districts large and small are beefing up their security measures. From adding extra security and safety personnel in the stands, to scheduling games on Thursday nights and Saturday afternoons, to placing metal detectors and police dogs at the stadium gates or field-house doors, officials are leaving fewer and fewer things to chance.
Even such taken-for-granted features as on-street parking and separate entrances and exits for home and visiting fans make for fast disbursement of potentially hostile crowds.
"Knowing that you are safe inside and outside a facility is an important factor in why people attend games," says Bob Pajack, manager of interscholastic athletics for Pittsburgh Public Schools. "We're not afraid to make security and police officers visible, because visibility is a proactive measure that deters incidents from occurring. And we haven't had many incidents-knock on wood."
Some school districts have issued newly revised (or even newly written) materials to schools containing information about proper management of violent situations at athletic events. The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, for example, publishes a 16-page manual called "Crowd Control Procedures for Athletic Events."
In it are included 35 steps for the host school to take before a game-from evaluating the type and use of pre-game music to exercising restraint when it comes to confetti, streamers and other festive props that litter a facility. The manual also features responsibilities for visiting-school administrators and all cheerleaders, police officers, coaches, players, school newspaper reporters and spectators.
"We have reached out to individuals across the state who are very experienced in dealing with crowds, such as the security people at the Meadowlands and the Atlantic City cops," says Boyd Sands, executive director of the NJSIAA, which oversees 430 high schools with student populations ranging from 100 to 3,000. The association once hosted 45,000 people at Convention Hall in Atlantic City for a two-day basketball tournament without one reported incident. "That record is because a lot of people did a lot of work in advance," Sands says.
For example, security personnel at that event and at others contact each participating school prior to the event to determine school issues that may result in unrest among students. These tips help officials determine the type and amount of security they must provide.
At the games themselves, school personnel and security officers wear armbands provided by the association, for easy visibility. Sands recommends schools that already have classroom and hallway cameras also place them in gyms. Cameras at Rutgers University, the setting of a neutral-site football game last season, caught on film students damaging a section of seats, for which their school was billed. In many such cases, school administrators pass on the bills to the guilty students, as identified by the cameras.
Perhaps one of the most important security steps taken by New Jersey high schools is the circulation of a list of students from various schools who are not allowed to attend regular-season games for behavioral reasons. When entry is refused to those students, many of them balk, but an armed police officer and police dogs usually end the debate, Sands says. The NJSIAA eventually hopes to extend enforcement of the list to state tournament games.
At Pittsburgh high schools, metal detectors greet all football and basketball spectators. Staffed by at least three district security police officers, a detector is placed at each entrance of the stadium or gym. "People ask, 'Gee, metal detectors at athletic events?' " Pajack says. "But we even have metal detectors at some amusement parks in the Pittsburgh area."
A zero-tolerance policy for metal weapons is in effect at all Pittsburgh district high school games. Even a pocket knife is unacceptable, Pajack says. Mike Rotonda, athletic director for Columbus (Ohio) City Schools, isn't so sure metal detectors are the answer. "I don't know if we're ready at high school athletic events to take the kind of measures required to implement metal detectors to their greatest effect," he says. "You could be carrying a nail file. Is that a weapon?"
Instead, Columbus administrators rely on developing strong relationships between school safety and security specialists and students. The specialists patrol football and basketball games with cellular phones, walkie-talkies and pagers. "If a person is carrying a weapon, somebody else at the game knows about it," Rotonda says. "What we're trying to do is convince kids that for their safety and the safety of others, they should tell the school security specialists what's going on. If kids know you're in the business of helping them and trying to look after their best interests, the vast, vast majority of them will fill you in, because they don't want to get hurt. That's how you can make athletic events safer for everyone."
Schools in smaller communities that don't typically conjure images of high crime also are taking action to ensure that their safe reputations remain intact. A recent memo circulated to officials at Muscatine (Iowa) High School, for example, outlines a seven-step plan for evacuating the Muskies' field house in the case of a bomb threat or other dangerous situations. In Nebraska, Lincoln High School doesn't allow students to sit in the front row of bleachers at basketball games, which keeps them from inching their collective way onto the floor and into the playing area.
Now it's easier for supervisors to monitor students, and it makes things more difficult for students who want to confront referees or opposing players. Still, Parker does not rest easy at basketball games. "I'm actually more on edge with smaller crowds inside," he says. "Everything is magnified."
The threat of violence unfortunately remains real at all high school athletic events-inside or out. But thanks to the cooperative efforts of individual schools, districts and state associations, attempts to make the games safer appear to be succeeding.