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 failure to follow policies and procedures can have disastrous consequences. We have also seen mass shootings at parades, grocery stores, movie theaters, malls, places of worship, clubs, and office buildings.
Other shootings that aren’t high-profile mass shootings are also on the rise in many places around the country. The trend includes North Carolina. The city of Durham reported nearly 400 shootings so far this year as of Aug. 11. In Raleigh, there have been 26 homicides this year, compared to 19 during the same time period in 2021.
We have also seen officials attacked at sporting events, including several videos that have gone viral on social media.
There are a growing number of safety and security considerations that schools must take into account, but it is not limited to the school day. Athletics take place after school and community members come to campus to participate in those 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, moderated the discussion.
Hammes was a high school athletic director in Wisconsin when he was participating in a road athletic event. As he left the 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 inclement 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 heat up, plans evaporate. Instincts take over. Instincts come from practice, practice, practice.”
Hammes said everyone involved in game-day operations practicing emergency plans is essential — from school administrators, to coaches and all event workers. This preparation allows them to react instinctively to situations that arise, and we’ve seen those situations happen in North Carolina.
Just last week, Salisbury High School’s football game against West Rowan High School ended early after an unidentified woman allegedly yelled for a man with a gun, who began a rush to get out. Three people were injured in the melee, according to The Salisbury Post. It came after a social media post said a shooting was going to happen near the game, police said. Several witnesses claimed to have heard gunshots, but police have found no evidence that shots were fired, according to the newspaper report.
In September 2021, several shots were fired at the football game between Chambers High School and Glenn High School in Charlotte. No one was hurt, but the rush of people trying to evacuate the stadium was seen live on HighSchoolOT. In October 2021, two teenagers were shot after a football game at Seventy-First High School and another teenager was shot in the Durham County Stadium parking lot after a game between Northern Durham High School and Riverside High School.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘What will it be like in five years?'” Hammes said. “It has to be practiced constantly, like our fire drills. We’ve scaled back our fire drills. But we have more shootings in our schools than fires.”
Prevention is the key
The best way to keep people safe at high school sporting events is to prevent an emergency from happening all together, Hammes said. There are a number of best practices he outlined that schools can implement.
“Prevent, prevent, prevent is the name of the game today,” Hammes said. “But you can’t provide 100% certainty. If someone really wants to do something, they will do it.”
Hammes’ company teaches a practice it calls “active surveillance.” This requires everyone working at the event to be trained to supervise the crowd as they enter the venue, in the stands and everywhere in between.
One recommendation Hammes has is to buy a handheld metal detector for the gate. Using it on spectators as they enter the facility is best, but simply displaying it at the gate can be a deterrent, he said.
The gate is an important place for surveillance. Hammes said scanning the gate as people enter can alert event staff to potential problems, so having administrators or law enforcement at the gate 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 reaching into their pockets and look at their eyes. ‘Are you scanning or searching? witnesses, exits or officers, that’s something you have to watch out for.”
If schools are going to use metal detectors, Hammes said having a law enforcement officer at the metal detector is helpful because they are good at looking for suspicious activity. He said it’s also important to look for things that are out of place, such as someone wearing a jacket when it’s hot outside.
Active shooters and people with guns aren’t the only safety and security concerns that exist at high school sporting events. Spectators can cause safety problems when they lose control of their behavior in anger or storm the court to celebrate.
Last December, pepper spray was used to break up a fight between fans at the John Wall Holiday Invitational, ending the tournament for the night at Wake Community Technical College’s Northern Wake campus. A brawl between fans from Farmville Central High School and Life Christian Academy from Kissimmee, Fla., spilled onto the field midway through the game. The fight followed an on-field brawl in the previous match, which had already extended the safety issue, a tournament spokesman said at the time.
Also last December, two high school students were shot during a basketball tournament at Catawba College in Salisbury. The shooting put the campus on lockdown.
Managing spectator behavior is another important way to prevent safety issues at high school events, and Hammes says that starts with having enough people working at the event to oversee the number of spectators in attendance.
“If we can learn to actively monitor our events, we can 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 monitor. Every few minutes, an event worker should scan that section for people who seem agitated or angry, are loud, or are yelling at the referee or coach. When a person is introduced, notice what they are wearing, not what they look like. Hammes said noting what they’re wearing is called pattern matching recognition, so the next time the person scans that section it will be easier to identify that person.
“Every time I go back, I’m going to focus on that person and look at them,” Hammes said. “You can reduce a person’s anger just by looking. They know you’re looking.”
Hammes said non-verbal communication, such as nodding or motions to calm down, can be effective. Positioning yourself standing or sitting next to the person can also be effective.
“If the person continues their behavior, you’re going to have to deal with it. We have to have the courage to stand up and do it,” he said, noting that this should be done with compassion and empathy, not anger. The main thing is to penetrate the situation.
“If you’re not calm, you can’t reduce the tension. 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.”
KK works for the preparation of schools
NCADA is the professional organization for athletic administrators in North Carolina, and one of its core responsibilities is to provide education and resources for athletic directors in the state. The virtual session with Hammes was part of that educational process, but it won’t end there. In 2023, NCADA plans to offer safe sports certification classes to its membership.
“As parents, we expect when we drop our kids off at the game and come back and pick them up, that they’ve had a great experience and they’ve been safe the whole time, so our goal in doing these kinds of workshops and interactive webinars. is to provide these ideas and best practices to our athletic directors,” said NCADA Executive Director Roy Turner. “We’re just trying to be in a proactive situation.”
Turner said athletic directors at North Carolina are now more vigilant about facilities. He said that when there are rumors of something that might happen at a sporting event, those rumors are taken very seriously and not discounted.
“I think we’re gaining an increased sense of purposefulness where we’re starting to be more proactive,” he said.
Many schools have moved to using digital tickets since the COVID-19 pandemic, and digital tickets give schools a better opportunity to identify who is coming to an event. Some school districts have implemented clear bag policies, others are using magnetometers and metal detectors at the gate. Schools are also investing in signage to help communicate sportsmanship policies and expectations, and some schools have displayed QR codes that allow people to anonymously report information about violence or threats.
“I think all of us want to make sure … that every kid has the opportunity to experience (education-based athletics) in the future and learn the life skills that we were able to teach, that we took away from her .” Turner said.
Keeping events safe will be an integral part of keeping high school athletics viable for kids in the future, 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 worry about that, but this is the new world,” Hammes said.