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Gun Violence At Youth Sports Contests: An Ever Present Threat in Urban Areas

It's the biggest fear of anybody who runs an urban athletic program, and it just happened in Chicago. A group of gang-bangers with no affiliation with a school or sports program decide to bring their foolishness into the gym.

On January 9, 2009, five teenagers were shot outside of Chicago's Dunbar High School as a crowd was leaving the gym after a basketball game. It appears that none of the victims attended the school. The incident appears to be gang-related; but the shooters have yet to be apprehended so their  motivation is at this point unknown.

Discussions about youth sports uusally focus on unruly parents, post-game handshake problems, crazed and unsportsmanlike parents, coaches who won't play kids, issues pertaining to physicals, sports concussions, sports psychology and a host of other important issues. But as anybody who runs a large urban program knows, the possibility of violence, even gun violence, is very real.

Can It Happen At My Child's School? Yes It Can

Violence can rear its ugly head at any urban school. Dunbar is an inner city public school, but violence can occur in any urban environment, including private schools, no matter how exclusive. Last year in San Francisco, a spectator at a Catholic high school was murdered while standing outside of the gym at halftime smoking a cigarette. Gun violence was reported at a number of other high school athletic contests around the country last year, including games in Putnam, Oklahoma and Portland, Oregon. The Portland shooting was particularly disturbing, as the shooters weren't deterred by the presence of 15 police officers working the contest. When 15 police officers at a high school athletic event aren't enough to deter an outbreak of gun violence, you know you've got problems.

Some Strategies For The Urban Administrator

The potential for violence creates some real problems for those who run athletic programs at urban schools which require them to be proactive.  Administrators can usually predict problems they'll confront in their gyms in advance. They know or should know which spectators have a history of violence or have scores to settle, and which neighborhoods have rivalries.  Armed with that knowledge, they can take steps to minimize the risk of violence as much as possible, such as by using a metal detector to screen fans entering the gym and by  having enough security personnel on site for  crowd control in case things look like they are getting out of hand.

Urban athletic administrators can and should cultivate relationships with local police, school police, and school security so that the police will be able to warn them of outside incidents that have the potential to flare up into violence at a game. Did a kid brandish a knife outside of school on Thursday when School A played School B? Was that kid caught or even identified? Better increase security for a while when School A and School B play their next few games - and you'd better be especially vigilant in the rematch between School A and School B.

As an additional safeguard, urban athletic administrators can request that a member of the police force and/or school security who work with the visiting school or in the visiting team's neighborhood to attend the game, as they are in the best position to know the kids who may cause trouble.

Of course an urban athletic administrator has all of the classic youth sports problems. Tough parents, playing time, etc ... are real problems no matter where the school is located.  But they also have to deal with problems that are more common in urban schools than in rural or suburban areas . The fact that we seldom hear of gang-related shootings like the one at Dunbar doesn't mean that they're not always on the urban athletic administrator's mind. It's a good bet that every urban athletic administrator knows that an incident like the one at Dunbar could happen at their school under the right, or should I say wrong,  set of circumstances.

Solutions Can Be Expensive - But The Expense Is Worthwhile

Chicago schools will continue to play interscholastic sports .  The recent shooting is likely to result in heightened security and a more visible presence of police at some games, but the need of athletic directors to be ever vigilant and on guard against the threat of violence won't go away after the incident is no longer making headlines.

The extra security will no doubt be very visible, but it will also be expensive. The police and the city will bear some of the costs, but Chicago's athletic program will be forced to shoulder a lot of the costs too. 

Keeping fans and players safe is worth every penny of extra expense, of course.

It's a shame that some of the schools that can least afford it, however, are the ones that end up having to pay more.