Requiring photo ID could be key to safer environments for fans at high school sports events

Requiring photo ID could be key to safer environments for fans at high school sports events

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Requiring photo ID could be key to safer environments for fans at high school sports events

File photo by Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports

(Photo: Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Sports)

Photo identification is required to buy tobacco and alcohol, to board a plane, to vote in some states and increasingly, to attend a high school football or basketball game.

Several school districts across the country have started carding would-be spectators in recent years in an effort to increase security at after-school athletics events, and turning away those who fail to produce a photo ID to gain admittance.

“It’s the most cost-effective way to reduce risk at all our high school events,” said Jay Hammes, a longtime former high school teacher, coach and athletics administrator in Wisconsin. “And we should be doing this nationally. And schools are moving in that direction right now.”

Hammes is the president of Safe Sport Zone, which is sponsored by American Family Insurance (USA TODAY High School Sports). For years, he has traveled the country advocating preparedness and instructing school personnel on effective safety measures and techniques. To help meet demand, his organization offers a free 90-minute online training and certification program for after-school event staff on ways to prevent and de-escalate incidents, the completion of which may help mitigate a school’s liability in the event one occurred.

RELATED: More on how Safe Sport Zone works

Hammes said he began developing an after-school safety and security plan in 2002 after witnessing gunfire outside a high school basketball game. If schools identify visitors during the day, he thought, why shouldn’t that continue after 3 p.m., when there are far more strangers on campus?

“I think it’s critically important. After-school event safety and security is becoming more paramount than we’ve ever talked about before,” said Bruce Whitehead, a former longtime high school athletics director in Indiana and the executive director of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, a professional organization that counts about 9,000 athletics administrators as members. “Of course we haven’t had anything like what happened at Sandy Hook with a gunman or domestic terrorist, but if it’s happening at elementary schools with 300 or 400 kids, it’s only going to be a matter of time until one of these depraved individuals decides I can go to the high school football game Friday night with 5,000 people in the stands. And if I can get a weapon in there, I can do a lot more damage.”

How to institute the policy

USA TODAY High School Sports spoke with school administrators and policy makers in six states, and the story told by those who began requiring photo IDs at high school games followed a similar arc. After initially implementing the policy, attendance slightly decreased. But fights, drug-related incidents and poor sportsmanship were effectively eliminated, if those issues were present to begin with, and over time attendance grew to surpass the original crowds.

The theory is simple.

“When people have to jump through hoops to get into the gate, if they’re up to no good, they’re not coming through,” said Lucy Dressel, the safety director overseeing four high schools in the Hemet Unified School District in Southern California.

Part of the area is gang-affiliated, Dressel said, and attendance at athletics events had decreased because the community no longer felt safe. She said the security patrol for an average Friday night football game required 15 Marines, five police officers and all available campus supervisors.

Two years ago, the four schools began mandating photo IDs to get through the gate at “high-risk” athletics events like football and basketball games, while also banning backpacks and reserving the right to search bags. If ticketholders left the game, they were barred from reentry.

RELATED: Game in Nevada suspended when brawl breaks out in stands

Everyone was reminded of the ID requirement when they purchased their ticket. Those who arrived and refused to show ID weren’t allowed in the venue and had their money reimbursed.

“It takes the anonymity out of it,” said Irwin “Stosh” Schtierman, the AD at Wicomico High School (Salisbury, Md.), which draws about 1,500 fans for football, 500 for basketball and put a similar policy in place. “You show an ID, even though you don’t remember who’s on that ID, they know that you know. You know what I mean?”

 Communication is key

Requiring photo IDs is always difficult, at first.

There are invariably upset visitors.

“Like everything, the challenges were that it was new and it was change,” said Mike Gulino, the AD at Byram Hills High (Armonk, N.Y.), north of New York City, where crowds for basketball games average around 1,000 people while football draws 500. “People said they didn’t understand why they had to show their photo ID. I think that was the biggest obstacle. But you do some communication to the community and they become aware. It’s easy to communicate things to your community. Sometimes it’s more difficult to communicate to other communities.”

The schools used various methods to inform visitors about the new policy in advance, including sending emails and letters to parents, memos to opposing schools, alerting local media and posting signs at the gate.

“Then you have to use your common sense,” Schtierman said, “like when a grandparent shows up. It’s amazing how many people travel without photo ID.”

MORE: Virginia basketball game turns into brawl when fans rush court

When security maintained a united front and explained the reasoning – to provide a safer, more enjoyable environment – people eventually began to accept and actively support the measure.

“It took months of initiating the policy before we had good rapport and good feedback from a lot of our attendees,” Dressel said. “But their thankfulness and consideration of the process far outweighed the complaints that we received, and it definitely initiated a more welcoming environment for individuals to attend our events, versus in the past where they just said, ‘You know what, I’m not coming anymore because of all the fights and the issues and things of that nature.’ It definitely sent a message out on the street that this was a no-fuss, no-fight zone, and for the most part people were receptive to that.”

The security patrol at an average football game in the Hemet Unified School District now requires five fewer Marines and a minimal police presence, she said, while attendance has climbed to about 2,000 people. Basketball games draw around 800.

“A lot of people are bringing their whole family,” Dressel said. “In the past, if somebody came to a game, they didn’t bring kids, or one person stayed home with the kids and only one person came to the game, and now it’s more of a family environment.

“It was a tradeoff. We were more than willing to suffer a decrease. If you’re up to no good, we don’t want you at the game, and if that’s a decrease we’ll take it as is, but once the message got out there and we were showing that decrease, then we actually had an increase in the attendance, so it was a win-win.”

MORE: Fight in stands leads to Ohio football game being canceled

Hammes stresses proper training and cautions against impropriety.

“We need our school official to be up there at the gate and start looking for suspicious behavior,” he said. “People detectors are better than metal detectors. But we have to pay attention and get people trained. What are you looking for? We’re looking for the hands and the eyes and we’re not looking at physical characteristics. That’s profiling. And anybody that’s doing that, get rid of them. But we need to get up there and start focusing in on what you’re going to allow to come into your game and screen that gate.”

Some schools have taken the photo ID requirement a step further and sell all of their tickets online – and personalized.

An attendee must purchase and print such a ticket at home, then present it at the gate along with an ID that matches the name on the ticket.

“There are very few selected districts that are trying this,” said Whitehead, the NIAAA executive director. “I think if trends continue in our country and our society, I think there will come a day where at all – well, not all, because there are some areas of the country that that’s not going to be an issue for a long, long time – but there are some areas of the country where that’s going to become the rule, rather than the exception, where you will purchase all of your tickets in advance and your name will be on the ticket and you will present a photo ID with the ticket, and that’s how you will get into the high school event.

“Most of the areas where it’s happening now are areas of high population density.”

The challenge 

Requiring a photo ID is not worthwhile or feasible in all areas.

With roughly 20,000 high schools in the United States, ranging from large to small, from urban to suburban to rural, one size doesn’t fit all.

A tiny school in a rural community, where everyone knows each other and there are a handful of spectators, probably doesn’t require such a measure.

And schools with larger crowds may have significant trouble instituting such a policy.

MORE: Bleacher brawl at middle school game injures administrator

Rhonda Blanford-Green is the executive director of the Nebraska School Activities Association, the governing body for athletics at 308 public and private schools.

She’s a proponent of Hammes’ training, but views requiring a photo ID as an unwieldy practice.

“Having everybody who enters our tournaments have a photo ID would not be conducive to putting on an event,” Blanford-Green said. “Because for our people, and I bet you for any sporting event, five minutes before the game starts you’ve got thousands of people now trying to get in for the start of the game. But definitely having the check of the bags … all of the practical pieces of providing a safe environment at our sporting events are good.

“I think one thing that everybody has to realize,” she said, “is that every state association and every school will have to take those pieces of the puzzle and apply them how they fit perfectly and they fit within their umbrella.”

The required manpower for such an endeavor is the reason why, after a couple of years, Wicomico High in Maryland stopped checking IDs. They instead installed security cameras throughout the building and record the entrances and the crowd.

“Still, the majority of people who come to our games take out their IDs automatically,” Schtierman said. “It just became what they do.”

The key to maintaining the safest possible environment is being proactive and diligent.

Blanford-Green was with the Colorado High School Activities Association during the Columbine shooting, and cautions against having a “false sense of security sometimes when you haven’t really had many incidents, or it doesn’t blare at you except when the national media puts it out there.”

Gulino, who’s retiring in June after 34 years in his New York school district, echoes the sentiment.

“Basically, the biggest thing that we work on is good sportsmanship and good behavior at games,” he said, “but with a lot of these things, you don’t know if you’ve just been lucky or if it’s because of the things you’ve put in place that have actually prevented anything from happening on our campus. I’d like to believe it’s a combination of both.”

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