Shrieks and gunfire on a high school campus. Spectators trampled under a stampede of panicked students. A medical helicopter thundering onto the football field’s 50-yard line to collect a victim.
Despite millions of dollars in security upgrades and months of new safety measures, it only took five days of classes for gun violence to erupt this year at one of Palm Beach County’s public schools – this time at a varsity football game at Palm Beach Central High in Wellington.
Although no students were among the shooting victims and the gunfire erupted long after classes ended, the images that emerged from Friday’s game evoked the same mass shootings that have dominated the national debate about firearms and school safety during the past decade — not least among them February’s massacre in Parkland, 30 miles away.
The shooting did not appear to involve any students — authorities say shots were fired during a fight between adults near the ticket booth — but it prompted pandemonium at the heavily attended game and left students, parents and educators wondering what more, if anything, could be done to prevent the same from happening again.
Full coverage: Wellington game shooting
School district leaders canceled all school sporting events countywide this weekend and plan to spend the upcoming days poring over details of Friday’s event. Saturday morning, authorities were still sifting through conflicting reports of where the gunfire originated.
Some early reports after the shooting indicated the gunshots occurred outside the school campus along Forest Hill Boulevard. But law enforcement authorities confirmed Saturday afternoon that it occurred on school grounds outside the seating area of the stadium.
“We do know it’s community-based violence that made its way onto a school campus, and that’s disappointing,” said Amity Schuyler, the school district’s chief of staff.
The practice game between Palm Beach Central and Dwyer High – two rival powerhouse teams – was heavily attended and guarded by police. Several armed officers were present to provide security, and dozens more swarmed onto the campus in the moments after the gunfire.
The rapid, large-scale response drew widespread praise from people attending the game.
“The response is to be applauded,” said Deborah Cirincione, whose daughter, a Palm Beach Central student, attended the game. “No one has said that, and it needs to be said. I saw them drive on the sidewalk by the Olympia canal to get people moved over. Parents in cars crying, getting out, getting their kids. Cops helping every one.”
Schools do not screen or search vehicles or people before they enter school premises to attend sporting events, making it difficult to prevent someone from approaching a school stadium with a firearm.
Whether schools will impose new screening requirements to access school grounds likely will be part of a review of the district’s events-security plans.
“While the investigation into this incident continues, district officials will be working to determine what additional safeguards are needed for Friday night football games,” school district spokesman Kathy Burstein said in a statement Saturday.
After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High six months ago, state lawmakers passed a host of new school-security requirements, including mandating that safety officers patrol every public school campus and that all schools devise security plans.
Separately, school district leaders this summer expedited long-planned upgrades at several campuses, including security cameras, fences and walls on some sites to limit access to campus.
But district leaders have rejected calls for metal detectors at schools, saying that doing so would be costly and impractical.
Many schools have also restricted students’ movements between classes and before the first bell rings. Some campuses now require clear backpacks. Some require parents to obtain special parking decals to pick up their children.
But most of the security efforts have been focused on protecting students during the school day. And much has centered on extending to elementary and middle schools the sorts of measures already in place at most high schools.
Securing sporting events on school campuses is different from securing classrooms, given that high school games are public events.
And while searching individual vehicles may not be feasible, schools can better secure their campuses during special events through thorough planning, said Ken Trump, an Ohio-based school safety expert.
“It just not as simple as ‘hire a few off duty police and let the games begin,’” he said. “How do we deploy these people? Where are they assigned?”
Schools also need to consider whether spectators should be allowed to bring large bags, whether bags ought to be searched and whether attendees should be allowed to re-enter after leaving the venue.
At school athletic events, parking lots should be monitored along with the stands and fields, since many conflicts begin there as people enter or leave, he said.
“That’s part of the venue and that’s part of the area of responsibility,” he said. “It’s really those outer ring perimeters where you often have higher risk.”
Opened in 2003, Palm Beach Central High is one of the county’s most modern high schools. It has a single point of entry to the main campus and only a few access points from the street.
The stadium is offset by fences, and several armed officers were on hand to secure it.
But on Friday, none of that was enough to stop the outburst of gunfire.