How do you protect high school sports programs?

With violence becoming more frequent in the United States, mass shootings becoming more common, and divisions more heated, schools are spending more time discussing safety and security.

We have seen many school shootings in the United States this year and over the last few decades. The shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, demonstrated that failure to follow policies and procedures can have devastating consequences. We have also seen mass shootings at parades, grocery stores, movie theaters, shopping malls, places of worship, clubs, and office buildings.

Other shootings that are not high-profile mass shootings are also on the rise in many parts of the country. The trend includes North Carolina. The city of Durham has reported nearly 400 shootings this year through Aug. 11. In Raleigh, there have been 26 homicides this year, compared to 19 during the same period in 2021.

We have also seen officials being attacked at sporting events, some videos of which have gone viral on social media.

There are a growing number of safety and security considerations for schools to take into account, but it’s 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 in high school athletic programs where they discussed some of the issues and best practices. Safe Sport Zone President Jay Hames led the discussion.

Hamms was a high school athletic director in Wisconsin when he attended an athletic program down the road. As he left school, a shot rang out and narrowly missed him. Since then, Hamms 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, Hamms says plans are often too long for people to understand and when an emergency actually happens, people forget the plan and revert to their instincts.

“Do you think I was thinking about my plan of action when the shots were fired?” he said. “No, absolutely not. When things heat up, plans evaporate. Instinct takes over. Instinct comes from practice, practice, practice.”

Hammes said it’s important to have everyone involved in game day operations practice emergency plans — school administrators, coaches, and all event workers. That preparation allows them to react on instinct when situations arise, and we’ve seen those situations happen in North Carolina.

Just last week, a Salisbury High School vs. West Rowan High School football game ended early after an unidentified woman yelled about a man with a gun and began a rush to exit. According to The Salisbury Post, three people were injured in the stampede. It came after a social media post that there would be a shooting near the game, police said. Some witnesses claimed to have heard gunshots, but police found no evidence of shots being fired, according to newspaper reports.

In September 2021, several gunshots were fired during a football game between Chambers High School and Glenn High School in Charlotte. No one was hurt, but the crowd 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 parking lot of Durham County Stadium after a game between North 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, just like our fire drills. We have our fire drills. But there are more shootings than fires in our schools.”

Prevention is the key

The best way to keep people safe at high school sporting events is to prevent emergencies from happening all together, Hammes said. There are best practices he mentions that schools can put in place.

“Stop, stop, stop is the name of the game today,” Hammes said. “But you can’t provide 100% protection. If someone really wants to do something, they’re going to do it.”

The Hams Company teaches a practice called “active supervision.” This requires everyone working at the event to be trained to observe the crowd as they enter the facility, in the stands and everywhere in between.

One of Hams’ recommendations is to purchase a handheld metal detector for the gate. It’s best to use it on spectators as they enter the facility, but displaying it only at the gate can be a deterrent, he said.

The gate is an important place for supervision. Hamms said scanning the gate as people enter can alert event staff to potential problems, so it’s important to have an administrator or law enforcement at the gate.

“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 coming in with their hands in their pockets, and look at their eyes. ‘Are they scanning you or looking for witnesses, Or the exits, or the authorities, it’s something to see.”

If schools are going to use metal detectors, Hamms said it’s helpful for law enforcement officers to have metal detectors on hand because they’re better 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.

Organize the audience

Active shooters and armed individuals are not the only safety and security concerns that exist at high school sporting events. Spectators losing control of their behavior in anger or storming the court in celebration can cause safety issues.

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 Technical Community College’s North Wake campus. A brawl between fans of Farmville Central High School and Life Christian Academy of Kissimmee, Fla., spilled onto the court midway through the game. The fight followed an on-court fight in a previous match, which had already heightened security, a tournament spokesman said at the time.

Also last December, two high school students were shot and killed during a basketball game at Catawba College in Salisbury. The campus was placed on lockdown due to the shooting.

Managing audience behavior is another important way to prevent safety issues at high school events, and Hamms says that starts with having enough people working at the event to supervise the number of spectators in attendance.

“If we can learn to proactively monitor our programs, 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 a section should be designated to monitor event workers. Every few minutes, an event worker should scan the section for people who are agitated or angry, loud, or yelling at the referee or coach. When identifying a person, note what they are wearing, not what they look like. Hamms said what he’s wearing is called pattern matching recognition, so the next time a person scans that segment, it’s easier to identify that person.

“When I turn around, I focus on that person and look at them,” Hammes said. “You can ease people’s anger just by looking. They know you’re looking.”

Hams said non-verbal communication, such as nodding your head or making gestures to calm down, can be effective. Positioning yourself to stand or sit close to the person can also be effective.

“If the person continues their behavior, you have to address it. We have to have the courage to get up there and do that,” he said, not with anger, but with compassion and empathy. The key is to de-escalate the situation.

“If you’re not calm, you can’t slow down. Be patient,” Hammes said. “If you see a conversation with another program worker getting heated, help them. Go in and help deescalate because once they get heated, they can’t deescalate.”

NC is working to prepare the school

NCADA is the professional organization for athletic administrators in North Carolina, and one of its main responsibilities is to provide education and resources for athletic directors in the state. The virtual session with Hammes was part of that learning process, but it wouldn’t end there. In 2023, NCADA plans to offer safe sports certification classes to its membership.

“As parents, we expect to drop our kids off at the game and come back and pick them up, that they have a great experience and are safe the entire time, so our goal is to do workshops and interactive webinars like this. Provide these ideas and best practices to our athletic directors. do,” said NCADA Executive Director Roy Turner. “We’re just trying to be in a proactive situation.”

Turner said North Carolina’s athletic directors are already becoming more vigilant about the environment. He said that when there are rumors that something might happen in a sports event, such rumors are taken seriously and will not be discounted.

“I think we’re getting a higher sense of intentionality 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, while others are using magnetometers and metal detectors at the gates. Schools are also investing in signage to help communicate policies and sportsmanship expectations, and some schools have displayed QR codes that allow people to anonymously report tips about violence or threats.

“I think we all want to make sure … that every kid has the opportunity to experience (education-based athletics) in the future and learn life skills that we can learn, that we’ve taken away from that.” 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 it’s a new world,” Hammes said.

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