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Expanding Security Awareness in High School Athletics

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Etiwanda (Calif.) High School [Photo courtesy of Etiwanda HS]
Etiwanda (Calif.) High School [Photo courtesy of Etiwanda HS]

Alcohol sales, terrorist threats, public transportation schedules. These are among major security issues on the radar for many professional and collegiate athletic venues, but not high schools, at least not yet. High school athletics come with a unique list of security concerns, but the spotlight on security at higher levels — even topics not particularly germane to prep sporting events — have been a boon to high school security efforts.

"I think as gameday security has ramped up — with clear bags at the NFL and more screening in general — it has caused people at the high school level to look at what their protocols are rather than just opening up their gates and taking money," says Jim Inskeep, athletics director at Carmel (Ind.) High School. "The idea of security is becoming discussed more often, and that's a really good thing for high schools of all sizes. There's so much emphasis on day-to-day operations that global approaches to keeping people safe at events sometimes gets lost in the shuffle."

High school administrators are taking advantage of the national focus on event safety and becoming more proactive in addressing safety at their athletic venues. They're working to change the fan expectation and culture of interscholastic athletics, borrowing many tools and techniques utilized at larger venues and scaling them for their own purposes.

Though sports fans have adjusted to increased security protocols at professional events, many high school athletic directors say they still see pushback to similar safety measures at their own events. "If I go to a pro event and they're running magnetometers, I have to go through. I can't bring a bag in. I'm not going to argue — I'm going to follow the rules," says Larry Johnson, assistant superintendent for public safety and school security for the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Public School district, which serves 52 schools in a metro area with a population of nearly one million. "But at our high school events, some of our fans don't believe they should have to follow those security protocols. I'm asking kids not to bring their book bags, and I'm running parents through magnetometers. The majority appreciate it, but there are parents who don't understand and tell us we're overdoing it."

One issue that schools face, says Johnson, is the stigma that security measures place on some communities. "Inner-city schools have become used to having high-security protocol at high-participation events," he says, "but when a suburban or rural school comes into town to play a school with tighter security protocols, those schools are looked down upon, or people fear going to those games because they think they're not safe."

"Before I came to the suburbs, I worked for an urban district, and the number of people who showed up to those games was probably less than we have here, but there was actually a need for greater security," says Gary Majors, director of safety and security for the Liberty (Mo.) Public School District. "Not so much the crowd inside but the parking lots outside. We had to ramp up security so people felt safe coming to events."

Majors says that the district has had to deal with zero major security incidents, a statistic he attributes to the visibility of the security presence. "We push our security out to the parking lots. If I can get them out there to be visible, it takes care of a great part of it. We make sure our lots are well-maintained with adequate lighting. It makes people think, 'If I start this, there's going to be a consequence.' "

Security awareness isn't the only cultural shift trickling down from higher levels of competition. Fans at the interscholastic level are also taking behavioral cues through what Inskeep calls "the SportsCenter generation."

"They're seeing how college students celebrate with court-storming and field-storming, and I think that's a big change," Inskeep says. "Students want to emulate that. From an administration standpoint, trying to fight that trend has been the biggest change in our environment."

"We've recently upgraded our cameras in our facilities," Inskeep says, referring to a mix of more cameras and increased resolution of existing ones. "The thing with cameras, you're on the back end of the situation, being able to view it. But we feel like we're keeping the venue safe because people know it's under surveillance 24/7."

Cameras are also a key investment in Grand Rapids, says Johnson. "This year, we're making a $50,000 to $75,000 investment in cameras for our football field. We have safe rooms for cash counting, drop safes, panic alarms, but the one thing we were missing was cameras. We wanted our customers to feel safe and ensure that if something happened, we had that additional investigative tool to use."

Another useful tool added in the Grand Rapids district has been a radio communications tower with a designated athletic events frequency. "We allow any school that has contact with our school to put this frequency into their two-way radios at no cost," Johnson says. "When we go to those communities, we can all go on the same radio frequency and communicate with each other."

Social media also has been a welcome asset to the prep athletic department's toolbox, says Inskeep. "We can get info out on our security protocols before a big game. We can also monitor any trash talk that may be going on and deal with that before the start of the game. So in some ways it's really good because students show their hand a little bit.

"The biggest part for us is being able to get information out," he continues. "We're talking about the safety of venues, but we had an hour weather delay before our Semi-State Football game. It was good for us to be able to get out the information about the delay, when the kickoff was going to be, when the gates would open. People were monitoring that and either didn't have to leave their house or stayed at the restaurant they were eating at before the game and didn't show up disappointed because they had to sit in their car for an hour."

Staffing and training have been key issues limiting the security efforts of interscholastic administrators. "Gameday staff and athletic department staff are doing one thing and the security department is doing another, and there's no coordination of effort, even down to the parking attendants," says Johnson. "Another barrier that I'm seeing is that the high rate to cover athletic events by law enforcement is forcing some districts to go uncovered."

Majors says he relies heavily on the school resource officers and athletic directors in his district to keep a finger on the pulse of the student body. "We try to keep it low key. Most of these officers work for the district, so they know a lot of the kids and the families."

Such relationships are a unique advantage for interscholastic security teams, leading to a more personal security dynamic at events. "We make it more than anything else a part of the event," Majors says. "We encourage them to interact with the youths and the parents on a friendly basis and only put their law enforcement hats on when they have to."

The local police department also steps up its presence during games, and teachers and volunteers attending games are empowered and encouraged to take an active role in the security process, Majors says. "Security in today's world is everybody's responsibility, not just the people wearing a uniform or a security shirt."

[Photo by Shutterstock][Photo by Shutterstock]

The importance of an exit strategy

Even the most prepared security team may not be able to stop every incident, but it can prevent a serious incident from becoming something more devastating. Last February, the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Public School district was alerted to a threat made against one of its Ottawa Hills High School basketball players related to a game scheduled later that week against rival Muskegon Heights High School.

"There's some cross-contamination or interaction between the two communities," says Larry Johnson, assistant superintendent for public safety and school security for the Grand Rapids Public School District. Members of both school districts, as well as local police and the mother of the student, conferred and decided to hold the contest — with some precautions in place. "We told them we wanted to bring our security team with us. We would come only to assist our players, our fans. If they had any problems, we would help address them."

Grand Rapids officials asked that its visiting Ottawa Hills fans remained in their seats during the game, and Muskegon Heights increased police presence at the game and in parking areas. "The individuals who had made the threats on Facebook had been identified, and police made contact with them, told them they were not welcome," Johnson says.

The game took place without any major incidents. After the game, the Ottawa Hills team planned to load busses at the opposite end of the building to avoid any potential altercations. Unfortunately, similar precautions weren't taken to ensure safe exit for the fans. "One of our lessons learned: You cannot have just one or two exit points," Johnson says. "Large crowds began to gather, and there was some type of confrontation outside. One of the fans pulled out a gun and fired several times, striking two students."

Police on scene quickly moved to address the situation. The gunman, who was not a student in either district, was eventually shot and arrested.

Meanwhile, fans outside the building were rushing to get back in, running up against fans who were unware of the incident trying to exit. "The normal training in schools on a shooting is a lockdown," Johnson says. "In an attempt to lock the facility down, you also lock out a lot of people who were seeking shelter. At that point, you have to make a decision: Do you let people back into the facility, and if you do, are you allowing the shooter back in?"

Johnson's main concern was getting his players to safety. "We accounted for and got all of our kids on the bus, and took an alternate route so that if this was a bigger problem, no shots would be fired.

"That's something we had planned for early on," he continues. "Our drivers knew exactly what to do, so we were able to get our kids back safely."

Proactive measures ensured that the student-athletes all returned home safely and were delivered into the hands of their parents or guardians, but there was still fallout to address. "We made the decision that we would not play anymore contests against Muskegon Heights the rest of the year," Johnson says.

Other opponents elected not to play Muskegon Heights that season — an understandable decision, but one that even Johnson hates to see happen. "To start canceling, postponing, having closed events — how much damage are we doing? We have to train, plan ahead, prevent the issues from happening."

This article originally appeared in the January | February 2017 issue of Athletic Business with the title "High school ADs more proactive as security awareness grows" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


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