As basketball fans filed out of Dallas ISD’s Ellis Davis Field House on Friday night, a few dozen lingered near the exits to say goodbyes — feet away from the new metal detector that had scanned everyone on their way in.
Carter High School Principal Jonathan Smith stood near the back of the group, shaking hands and offering praise on his team’s 9-point win against Wilmer-Hutchins.
A handful of police officers and security guards stood around the periphery, giving the dwindling crowd a couple of minutes to chat before telling them it was time to leave.
The scene stood in stark contrast to a game there nearly two weeks ago.
On Jan. 11, at a high-profile contest between South Oak Cliff and Kimball, a former DISD student was critically injured and a district police officer was grazed by a bullet fragment after a fight broke out in the concourse of the gym.
The panic in the arena — players, officials and fans running for cover — was captured on cellphone videos and shared on social media, making national news.
The victim, 18-year-old Texas Can Academy student Marc Strickland, was taken off life support a week after the shooting. A 15-year-old DISD student, who turned himself in at Dallas police headquarters, has been charged with murder.
In response to the shooting, Dallas ISD has crystalized changes to its security policies — and at least one other area school district has been prompted to do the same.
With safety an increasing concern, even more districts are considering stringent screening at athletic events, like bag checks and clear-bag policies.
It’s a sober reminder of how a spike in violence in a community can spill onto a school campus.
“It’s sad, but that’s where we are right now,” Smith said.
CHANGES IN DALLAS AND HOUSTON
The state’s two largest school districts, Houston and Dallas, have changed their safety protocols in recent weeks in response to gun violence.
After the shooting at Ellis Davis Field House, metal detectors and hand-held wand detectors — previously only employed with regularity at football games — will now be the standard at high school basketball games for the rest of the season, said Sherry Christian, DISD’s deputy chief for operations.
Training for security staff on the new policies was completed last week.
“Everyone that goes into the games now has to either go through a metal detector or be wanded,” Christian said. “Everybody is scanned before they go in.”
That policy might be extended beyond football and basketball to include other events like track-and-field meets, she added.
After banning all bags and backpacks at athletic events in the week following the shooting, DISD has resumed its clear-bag policy, originally implemented at the start of the school year.
Fans can bring a small, clear plastic tote bag, a clear one-gallon plastic storage bag or a small clutch purse into the district’s athletic events.
In addition, at games in competition gyms on high school campuses, students from the home team will be able to bring their backpacks into the gym if they have a student ID and submit to a thorough bag search, Christian said.
Attorney Justin Moore — who says he’s representing Monique Mitchell, the mother of victim Marc Strickland — said this week that the student’s family believes that his death could have been prevented had metal detectors been used at the game.
The metal detector used at Ellis Davis on Friday had not been in operation on the night of the shooting; it was in storage at an adjacent football stadium, district officials said.
According to Moore, a lawsuit is in the works.
In Houston, the school district is scrambling to respond to the shooting death of a 19-year-old student at Bellaire High School in southwest Houston on Jan. 14.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said last week that the shooting appeared to be accidental. A fellow 16-year-old student has been charged as a juvenile with manslaughter.
On Thursday, Houston ISD’s interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said that about 20 Houston campuses could be equipped with metal detectors by the end of the school year.
Lathan told the Houston Chronicle’s Jacob Carpenter that her administration was “heavily looking” into installing metal detectors at all of the district’s middle and high schools, a step that would require board approval.
‘JUST AS BAD AS A TORNADO’
That’s the type of enhanced security that some in Dallas are asking for.
During the recent DISD school board meeting on Jan. 23, Diane Birdwell — a teacher at Bryan Adams High School and a member of Dallas’ National Education Association chapter — demanded trustees do more to ensure the safety of her school’s staff and students, calling the situation “a crisis just as bad as a tornado.”
The district’s high school staffing formulas dictate that one safety monitor be provided for every 599 students, Birdwell pointed out, meaning that Bryan Adams — with over 2,100 students — had four monitors.
Combined with a lack of police presence and not enough school counselors, the district was “not getting us what we need,” she said.
Not long after Birdwell’s comments, DISD board member Maxie Johnson made an impassioned plea to district administrators to be more responsive to his concerns about school safety, after learning a student was found with a gun at South Oak Cliff in late September.
“I said [in an email to superintendent Michael Hinojosa] that God was kind to us that day, because he didn’t let another kid get killed,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s 22-year-old son, Christopher Whitfield, was shot and killed in east Oak Cliff during a late-night robbery in August.
In December, in a separate incident, the trustee’s 19-year-old daughter, Teilor Johnson, was charged with capital murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in connection to the death of 20-year-old Quincy Wyatt.
During the board meeting, Johnson expressed his sadness that another teenager from the South Oak Cliff community had lost his life to gun violence. Prior to attending Texas Can Academy, Strickland went to DISD, both to South Oak Cliff High School and Zumwalt Middle School.
“I’m sorry that the parents have to feel what I feel, every night when I go to sleep, knowing that my son is no longer here,” Johnson said.
After the board meeting, the trustee stressed that the district needed a less uniform approach to safety, providing more support, counselors and security to communities that need it most.
“You have to listen to those neighborhoods,” Johnson said.
The district has vowed that safety and security is a key focus for its upcoming 2020 bond, with initial plans to allocate $129 million for safety improvements. And DISD was already making steps to beef up its security infrastructure prior to the Ellis Davis shooting.
According to Christian, the district is in the process of acquiring 80 weapon detection systems — considered more advanced than a basic metal detector — using a $2.5 million school safety grant from the state to buy the technology.
Christian said she hoped the district would have those devices by the end of the current school year.
CLEAR BAG POLICIES
In the aftermath of the Ellis Davis shooting, at least one other Dallas-area school district, Cedar Hill ISD, changed its security policies.
On Jan. 15, Cedar Hill announced that it would implement a clear-bag policy at all of its athletic events, and would place more administrators and police officers on site during games.
The district had already been in discussions about changing to a more comprehensive bag policy prior to the shooting, said Cedar Hill’s acting athletic director Melanie Benjamin. Cedar Hill already required guests to pass through metal detectors at athletic events, and the district launched a clear-bag policy in the fall at football games.
Duncanville ISD put similar restrictions in place at its athletic venues in November.
“After all the different things that have happened recently, we felt it was best for us,” Benjamin said.
Clear-bag policies are also being contemplated elsewhere in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
Mansfield ISD will implement new clear-bag rules for football games starting with the 2021-22 school year.
Mansfield’s athletic director, Philip O’Neal, said its district had been in discussions for the past nine months on moving to a clear-bag policy, dating back to attending a National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security summit in Katy, Texas, last March.
“We wanted to have some lead time to communicate it,” O’Neal said.
Frisco ISD assistant athletic director Grace McDowell said that her district — which started a clear-bag policy at all of its football stadiums in the fall — would clarify those rules for the upcoming school year.
Frisco had different size requirements for clear bags at one of its football stadiums because of its relationship with the Dallas Cowboys at the Ford Center, McDowell said. The policies would be made uniform next season, with the district hiring an outside company to screen large clear bags at its other two football venues.
The National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security will hold another three-day summit focusing on security at interscholastic athletic events starting Feb. 4.in McKinney.
And O’Neal, Mansfield’s athletic director, said he expected a robust turnout because of heightened concerns about safety.
“It’s a trend; we’re kind of in the middle of it,” he said.
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