Football security changes include earlier starts, some Saturday games

Aug 19, 2018
Fans watch the William T. Dwyer vs Palm Beach Central High School game in Wellington on Aug. 17, 2018. Gunfire interrupted play in the fourth quarter. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

The security playbook for Palm Beach County high school football will be rewritten this week in the aftermath of the shooting on the outskirts of a high school football stadium Friday night.

The shooting at Palm Beach Central High in Wellington sent two men to the hospital and hundreds of fans and athletes scrambling in fear, and in its wake forced a hard look at school safety after the last bell rings.

Full coverage: Wellington game shooting

The makeover will begin this week and include Saturday morning kickoffs for some of the biggest games of the season and an hour earlier starts at 6 p.m. rather than 7 for others.

Once fans get to the game, only clear bags — and searched diaper bags — will make it through the gates.

Leave mid-game and you’ll have to buy another ticket to get back in. No tickets will be sold in the third quarter. Metal detectors or wands may be coming as well.

Going forward, security staffing plans for football games and other large events will be devised by school police and paid for out of district accounts rather than pinning those obligations on each school. A group of principals will be putting together a list of protocols to be standard at events countywide.

PHOTOS: 2 adults shot at Palm Beach Central High football game

The measures were announced by Superintendent Donald Fennoy after meeting with his high school principals and school police Sunday afternoon. The group was unanimous in its support of these changes, he said.

Though changes are necessary, they should not be viewed as a criticism of security at Palm Beach Central where gunshots triggered panic in the fourth quarter, Fennoy said.

“Nobody has done anything wrong,” district chief of staff Amity Schuyler said. “The events of this weekend have given us an opportunity. We’re realizing some of our plans need to be standardized. We have an opportunity to course-correct at the beginning of the season.”

School Police Chief Frank Kitzerow praised the security in place when the Palm Beach Central Broncos squared off against William T. Dwyer’s Panthers. Seven school police officers were on duty as were several school officials — in all about 20 district administrators were in attendance.

“When the school police officers heard the shots being fired, they immediately moved to where that was happening. The first officer was at that scene in a matter of seconds,” Kitzerow said. “And that escalated as the minutes went by. By 10 to 15 minutes you had quite a large contingent.”

The measures announced and those that are expected from the group of principals assigned to delve deeper into potential protocols, will improve the consistency of what is done for every game, he said.

Could these measures have prevented Friday’s events?

Authorities have been quite clear in their message that the shooting that erupted on school property, but outside the stadium, was violent and dangerous, but was not random and not what would qualify in their definition of a school shooting.

“The bad guys in this were not there to shoot students. They were not there to go in and randomly kill a bunch of people. They just happened to be able to find (their targets) on the perimeter of that football game,” Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said at a news conference Saturday.

He said that while investigators have no certain motive, they have some ideas and that the victims in the shooting “know who did this and we’re going to find out who did it and apprehend them.”

Kitzerow echoed that message: “This was, unfortunately, an act of community violence that happened to spill on to a school campus. It was probably 50 yards off a main road and outside the secure area of our stadium.”

But both Bradshaw and Kitzerow agreed that now is the time to talk about extending the security perimeter around events, much as airport security has stretched to beyond the gate.

The measures announced Sunday would likely not have changed the outcome, Fennoy conceded. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t have an opportunity to improve our own practices. “

For years, security decisions have been made by principals, who then had to tap gate receipts to pay the bills. That put some schools in a bind, Schuyler said, particularly small schools or anyone hosting an event that draws meager ticket sales.

Games that start earlier or on Saturday morning appeal on multiple levels, Fennoy said.

“It’s just better control in daylight,” Fennoy said. “Typically, on a Saturday morning you’re not coming to hang out, you’re coming to support your child. Also, it allows us to end the day earlier — people can go home at a more reasonable time.”

School Board member Frank Barbieri contacted Fennoy by email earlier to say he endorsed moves including tighter restrictions on what can be carried into an event and daylight hour games.

“By the time kids get out of a football game it’s going on 9:30, 10 o’clock. They’re going out into a dark parking lot. People can’t see. I think it’d be safer if people got out in daylight, though I don’t know if that’s always possible,” Barbieri said.

Football games both in Palm Beach County and in cities across the country have canceled or rescheduled games for security reasons, but typically the move is a one-off, addressing a specific threat or safety concerns on one particular day.

In 2013, an Inlet Grove High home football game against Kings Academy was canceled in the wake of a threat to one of the players. In 2015 in Jacksonville a high school game was moved from Friday to Saturday when the schools weren’t able to staff enough police officers — too many were already working a preseason Jacksonville Jaguars game.

Until now, high school football games across the county typically kick off at 7 p.m. — sometimes 7:30 p.m. if the opponent is traveling a great distance. That means early in the fall, crowds begin to arrive in daylight as they did Friday at Central High. The shooting happened long after the sun went down.

On Sunday, the rescheduling had begun.

Reworking dates and times for local teams will likely to be easy to maneuver, Schuyler said. It’s those involving teams visiting from outside the county that may pose a challenge. Not only must athletes alter their itineraries, so must bus drivers and referees.

Two football games slated for Friday night — games involving the very teams in the center of the trauma just days ago — will be moved to 10 a.m. Saturday. Palm Beach Central will play Atlantic High, while Dwyer will play Park Vista.

And efforts are underway to dial back the kickoff time of 11 others in this season-opening week.

The state’s high school sports governing body, the Florida High School Athletic Association, reports that many football games take place on Saturdays across the state. The one day Florida high school football can’t be played: Sunday, “except under emergency or extraordinary conditions.”

The organization recommends host schools hire uniformed security but doesn’t require it. It’s up to schools and school districts to decide how to handle parking lot security.

Also Sunday, the district announced that counselors will be available at all schools on Monday.