The numbers don't lie. More than eight million students participate in interscholastic sports and afterschool programs annually, with approximately 336 million spectators attending those events. Threats, new and old, lurk around each corner, and for every athletics administrator tasked with providing a safe atmosphere for those millions of fans and athletes, the stakes have never been higher.
This past March, numerous leaders from the high school athletics and security community gathered in Hattiesburg, Miss., for the first National Interscholastic Athletics and After-School Activities Safety and Security Summit, hosted by the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4).
Everything from emergency-operations planning to identifying threats and hazards, along with building a safety-and-security-aware culture, was covered in this intensive weekend workshop that one attendee called, "a proactive way to ensure that you, as a leader in your community, are addressing all of the important areas that should be included in your emergency and safety plans.
The end game, in keeping with NCS4's commitment to a unified security approach across all levels and events, is to create a best-practices guide that will ultimately become a key resource for school districts across the country for many years to come.
High school athletics administrators encounter numerous challenges in how they prepare and manage sporting events at their respective schools, but a top priority, according to Biloxi (Miss.) High School athletic director Tom Gladney, is educating coaches from other sports assisting at events on their responsibilities. "One of the biggest challenges is getting coaches to understand the importance of their job, whether it is to watch a gate or to help supervise in the stands," he says. "We pay coaches a good stipend, but part of that means they have to help at home events. Many times, they get to talking to someone and do not really do their job."
Marmion Dambrino, director of athletics with the Houston Independent School District, believes most high schools need to show the same security concern from 3:30 to 11 p.m. that they do during normal school hours. "Most high schools are deficient in not having after-hours emergency plans," Dambrino says, noting that her district — which includes 24 high schools and 43 middle schools with athletic departments — excels in after-hours athletic event security.
"From the time any of our events are scheduled, we begin communicating with our district police departments and the sergeants who schedule officers at our district venues," she continues. "All parties involved in a contest or practice have a common understanding of all details pertaining to the event, and the communication is very open and clear."
In-state colleague and fellow summit attendee Vernon Reeves, principal with the Denton Independent School District, emphasizes how critical it is for schools to be on the same page at athletic events. "A school must have a clear plan for consistent and constant communication with all stakeholders with regard to your high-quality school emergency and safety plans," Reeves says. "Ask questions to verify everything is in place and outline everyone's roles. Be proactive and aware of hot spots at events. Make sure there is a written plan that is visible to everyone."
Reeves also stresses the importance of investing in equipment and technology as schools develop their respective emergency plans, but more often than not, athletics administrators have their fiscal hands tied. Not only are they up against more pressing needs, such as new uniforms, but there remains the idea that if something isn't broken, why fix it?
But if all things were equal, there's one investment both Gladney and Dambrino would not hesitate to make: cameras. "I would like to have more cameras and cameras that work," says Gladney. "We have lots of cameras, but it always seems like whenever we have an issue, they aren't working."
Says Dambrino, "I would love to have multiple cameras installed at each athletic field and field house, and have the staff to monitor those cameras 24 hours a day, with double the staff during events. I would also love to have a security drone."
While Dambrino loves the idea of a security drone to monitor activity at her events, she recognizes the security headache drones, in general, pose for her in the near future. "The long-term security threat that may not be on the radar screen of high school athletic directors would be unfriendly drones entering a stadium during a large outside event," says Dambrino, noting that active shooters remain a top concern, as well.
Gladney, on the other hand, sees a future problem with an element he has no control over: the weather. "The long-term security threat that looms for us is a hurricane," he says. "I was not here when Katrina hit and I hope I never see one, but you still have to be prepared for that type of threat."
From unmanned aircraft systems to weather safety to active shooters, the groundbreaking best-practices guide will address all potential risks, and serve as a living document that high school athletics administrators across the country can refer to when ensuring the safety of the thousands of participants and guests under their watch. The first edition will be introduced at the 2015 High School Symposium at the National Sports Safety and Security Conference & Exhibition, July 6-9 in Orlando, Fla.
Dennis Van Milligen is former editor-in-chief of Athletic Business.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Gameday Security with the title "HIGH ALERT"