published Friday, December 14th, 2012

Hamilton County School officials on alert after postgame shootings

Rick Smith is the superintendent of Hamilton County Schools.
Rick Smith is the superintendent of Hamilton County Schools.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Brainerd student Adrianna Ellis walks through the metal detector as she enters the Brainerd-East Hamilton basketball game Tuesday night. “Yeah, they put it here after the Howard game,” Ellis said.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
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Poll
Is more security needed at high school sporting events?

Gunfire that erupted following high school basketball games the past two weekends has prompted Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith to order additional security in some gymnasiums starting tonight.

Player and fan safety has become a major concern after rivalry games involving Howard School ended in gunfire near the Brainerd and Tyner high school campuses.

Rivalry games between some schools long have been heated affairs, with tempers sometimes giving way to shoving, even fistfights. But violence seems to have reached new levels.

"I've never seen it like this, and I'm afraid for people to come to these games," said Howard girls' assistant basketball coach Terri Parks. "It's sad. You're trying to leave a game and you're told you have to stay inside because there are people shooting outside."

Coaches insist that the problem is not spectators or fans in the stands, but others who show up after the games to cause trouble.

But after a second night of shootings following a basketball game last week left a student injured, Smith sat down with administrators from Howard, Brainerd and Tyner to see what could be done.

Smith later met with representatives from the Chattanooga Police Department and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

"We're trying to be as proactive as we can," Smith said. "I think it's important that we start modeling the behavior we want to see at athletic events."

Some of the more intense rivalry games, like tonight's Tyner at Brainerd game, generally have about 10 officers on scene, but Smith said starting today they will have more.

Law enforcement patrols surrounding high-profile games stretch far beyond the gymnasium. Smith said officers will be present across high school campuses, many of which are expansive. Brainerd's campus, for instance, is 60 acres.

Brainerd already uses metal detectors and wands to screen for weapons, and the superintendent said announcers will remind those in attendance over the intercom what kind of decorum is expected.

If the problems persist, Smith said, he might even go so far as to cancel games or change schedules.

Howard boys basketball coach Walter McGary agrees that the gunplay must be stopped.

"Something has to be done before there's a loss of life," McGary said. "I'm not sure that anything short of that will stop anything."

Outside troublemakers

Chattanooga State head basketball coach and Brainerd alumnus Jay Price said patrons are not the problem.

"They [shooters] probably aren't even in school," he said. "They're just looking to cause problems."

Price said at Tyner last Friday, "there was heavy security and nothing that happened in the gym. The unfortunate incident came from knuckleheads that came up afterward."

Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Lt. Shaun Shepherd, supervisor for the School Resource Officer program, is frustrated, too, but understands Smith's position.

"You have 5 percent that cause the problems, but they monopolize 95 percent of our time, and it's terrible for the 95 percent that just want to go enjoy the games," Shepherd said.

McGary, the Howard boys coach, said the biggest problem is that you "just don't know who's armed."

"There's an element that doesn't want to see anything positive. The gang thing is uncontrollable," he said. "Violence is so prevalent, I'm afraid to say hello to people because I don't want them thinking I'm disrespecting them."

McGary's Hustlin' Tigers played in each game that was followed by shootings at Brainerd and Tyner. Yet the feeling from all is that the issue is much bigger than one school.

"We haven't had that problem over here -- and I hope we don't -- but everybody's trying to put the blame on us," McGary said.

Said Shepherd: "It's sad that because these things are happening outside of the school, that a stigma gets placed on schools themselves."

Possible solutions

Some coaches offered solutions they believe could curb violence at games.

Parks, the Howard girls assistant coach and formerly the head coach at Tyner, said rivalry games in Atlanta are played on Saturdays, starting at noon.

"Everybody has to be willing, though," she said.

In Detroit, games are played right after school. Birmingham plays its rivalry games in front of the student body. In much of New York City, attendance at high school games is limited to the home school's students and adults from both schools, according to The New York Times.

"I feel safe going into the [local] games," Price said. "It doesn't scare me taking my family -- my three daughters and I will be on the front row, eating our popcorn -- but I could see some not wanting to go."

Shepherd said everybody -- parents, schools, law enforcement and the communities -- has had enough. With so many games at so many destinations on a Tuesday or Friday night, people want to go to an event and know that they're going to be safe from the time they leave their houses to the time they get home.

The issue for his department is to ensure that those things can happen.

"We have three missions in law enforcement: to teach specific topics; advise and to build character and trust between law enforcement and parents," Shepherd said.

"The resolution for the incidents is long term; it didn't happen overnight and it won't be resolved overnight."

Meanwhile, rivalry games are still going to be played -- starting tonight when Tyner travels to take on Brainerd.

"There's still going to be some hardheads, but public safety means a lot," McGary said. "The kids' safety takes precedence over all, but what can we do is the million-dollar question.

"Everybody has a solution, but do they have a viable solution?"

Staff writer Kevin Hardy contributed to this report.

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