It’s Friday night and your high school’s biggest rival is headed to town. Twenty years ago, that would have been reason for excitement. Today these matchups are met with trepidation and a lot of planning by school administrators, coaches and local law enforcement.
There is good reason for this shift in attitude. Shootings at school sporting events are on the rise over the past decade, and school districts have been forced to take steps to mitigate the threat. According to the K-12 School Shooting Database, 171 shootings occurred at school sporting events between 2012 and 2022, leaving 22 people dead and 171 wounded.
Kenneth Trump, a school safety and security consultant and the president of National School Safety and Security Services, acknowledges that times have changed. “We’ve certainly seen the evolution of security threats, incidents of violence, at school athletic events,” Trump says, “most notably high school football games and sometimes after basketball games.”
Trump says the trend has almost become predictable. As schools head into football season, the headlines will include not only scores and game highlights but tragic reports of violent incidents from across the country. That’s the reason it’s more than the teams on the field that are preparing for battle prior to a big game.
“Back in the day, 10 or 20 years ago, you hired a couple of off-duty police officers, and your own staff and administrators were the beginning and the end of planning for security and emergency situations at school athletic events,” Trump says. “Fast forward to today, not only do you have to consider security and police staffing, but it’s much more complex with the incidents that have happened in parking lots and in the surrounding areas, and with all the spectators coming and going in the area. The planning needs to be much more detailed.”
Here’s a look at some measures schools can take to ensure they’re prepared to deal with anything that might arise at upcoming sporting events.
While metal detectors and bag searches may not be right for every school or community, they’re increasingly common at high school sporting events. However, whether a school chooses to use these more invasive methods, some level of patron screening is a necessity. There are a variety of resources available to assist in implementing screening procedures in an effective manner. The National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security recently published the “Venue Managers Guide to Evaluating Patron Screening Solutions,” which offers advice on what level of screening is needed for specific venues and how to implement those procedures to ensure fan safety.
According to Trump, metal detectors can be a good fit for many schools, but he adds that they are tools that need to be implemented with care. “The devil’s in the details,” he says. “How are you running those? What are the sensitivities? Who’s going to set the sensitivity levels? Who’s got the staff, and if you’re running with metal detectors, are you going to also do X-ray machines for bags? And making sure that what you are doing is not security theater, that you’re not just creating the perception of increased security, but that you also have trained people who know the systems, and that’s hard to do.”
A couple more tips Trump suggests for effective screening:
- Decide ahead of game time if exceptions will be made for elderly patrons or those with disabilities.
- Conduct thorough training for any staff who will be implementing screening procedures.
- Assess your venue’s acceptable level of risk to select the appropriate screening measures for your unique venue.
Crisis planning and fan behavior
Perhaps the most important thing Trump suggests is that schools have a formal plan of action in place to deal with any situation that might arise. This involves collaboration with administrators, coaches, staff and local law enforcement to ensure that everyone knows exactly what to do in the event an emergency arises.
“The more detailed you are, the better off you are,” says Trump. “The more that you’ve thought things through, the more you’ve done the what-if scenarios, the better off you are. ‘Well, if this happens, what do we do? What if we had to evacuate? What if there were shots fired? What if there’s a medical issue?’ Just going through those things ahead of time creates shared mental models — basically getting everybody on the same page on cognitive decision-making. Involving those people, having a plan, communicating training, answering questions with the people or staffing: these things take time. And the greater your threat is, particularly for those more intense rivalry games, the more you need to ramp up your game.”
Ensuring that everyone knows what’s expected of them, including the student body, is also important and can be done before and during the game. Trump suggests the following:
- Communicate expectations for students and community members via school announcements and assemblies and on social media prior to the game.
- Post polite but firm signage at events that communicates expectations for fan behavior.
- Have public-address announcers remind fans of behavior expectations during the game.
- Ensure that coaches inform players of behavioral expectations and consequences, should those expectations not be met.
When a rival comes to town, the heat is turned up a notch for players and students. Trump stresses that many problems can be anticipated in the days and weeks leading up the game. In some instances, he says that school resource officers from opposing schools might meet a week prior to discuss any potential issues.
“If you have school resource officers, security personnel, staff — those are the people you want to work your games because they already know the kids,” Trump says. “They know there may be a gang involved or students who are having conflicts or having issues, problems that occurred during the week. You want people there who are assigned to the building during the day. People who know the kids often know the families, and that makes a difference when it comes to students who will act up in those situations.”
Some other tips on anticipating issues prior to game day:
- Monitor social media for discord between students from opposing schools.
- Talk to students and staff about any issue that might have come up during the week.
- Talk to coaches and athletic directors about any issues that might have arisen during past games.
While no one can predict the future, every school can create a plan to increase its chances of mitigating surprises on its own terms. Through detailed planning and communication, school administrators, coaches, law enforcement officials and community members can all come together to ensure that any crisis, especially one that might arise during that big game between rivals, can be handled in an effective and timely manner.
“I think it’s an issue of reducing the risks,” Trump says. “I think everybody either realizes or should realize what the risks are. You need to assess what particular threats you face, based on the uniqueness of each sport, or each game within that sport. Some football games or some basketball games, maybe the threat is greater because of the rivalries of the teams playing or the size of the crowd that you expect. I think athletic directors who’ve been around for a long time have a good sense of, ‘Okay, this one needs a little more attention.’ ”