By: John Fraraccio, CAA - Memorial High School (NJ)
Sitting atop the New Jersey Palisades overlooking the skyline of "The Big Apple," the community of West New York lies directly across the Hudson River from downtown Manhattan. Built as a result of the development of textile industries at the onset of the twentieth century, West New York (population 50,000) consists of a number of high-rise apartment buildings and is one of the most densely populated urban areas in the United States. The city is also characterized by its diversity; four out of every five residents in West New York speak English as a second language.
Memorial High School serves more than 2,000 students in grades 9-12. Like many urban secondary schools, the Memorial campus covers a limited footprint that includes both its main academic building and a multi-sport, artificial turf athletic field. Its gymnasium is tucked within the confines of the brick structure, and its athletic program competes in the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League (HCIAL), a conference consisting of both public and parochial schools in the northern part of New Jersey.
The boys basketball program at Memorial is highly competitive and attracts great interest from both the student body and the general public during the winter months. The school has won three state championships in its history, the most recent one being in 2002. Given the size of the facility, the competitiveness of its programs, and the ardent nature of its fan base, the Tigers frequently play in front of full-capacity crowds. Managing these contests involves meticulous scheming, careful execution, and coordinated teamwork among all members of the event staff.
The level of organization and the procedures required of athletics personnel at Memorial High School in hosting interscholastic basketball contests is not unlike that of many other city schools throughout the United States. Although all planning is venue-specific, urban schools frequently share many of the same challenges in managing their home athletic contests, including:
The Power of Proactivity: The Staff Security Meeting
Much of the effort that results in executing a successful interscholastic athletic event takes place long before the opening tip. Identifying (a) the personnel required for managing the activity, (b) the areas in which they will be deployed, and (c) the specific tasks that they will be assigned are critical. For a contest slated to occur in a tightly packed facility, these elements take on a particular significance. With energetic crowds sitting in close proximity to the action and the emotions that are part of high school basketball on full display, an athletic director in this setting must anticipate a range of crowd behavior scenarios and identify appropriate responses. Communication and training are essential to this process.
At Memorial High School, we dedicate all necessary funding to support the athletic department, particularly for venue and event security. Our superintendent truly believes that security has "no price tag." We utilize faculty members as part of our game day security team; they know our student body and are, in turn, known by them. At the same time, we have developed a positive working relationship with our local police department, who help staff our events. They are readily available to serve our school’s needs and are an integral part of our security plan.
Staff training is an essential part of our mode of operation. As a result, we conduct seasonal meetings to address the key components of event management in our gymnasium. In addition to offering us an opportunity to conduct "tabletop exercises" to identify specific game management issues that we may face on the night of a Tiger basketball home game, it also creates an opportunity to communicate one message to all of the stakeholders in the contest. Attendance at these meetings is mandatory for all persons assigned to work at our basketball games (or other contests covered by event staff).
The starting point for organizing our staff is identifying our basic expectations for being part of the game day team. Assignments for any upcoming events are distributed on Fridays, and security staff members are responsible for communicating any conflicts in their personal schedules. We require our game day workers to arrive at designated times and to be punctual in doing so; all work times are established to allow maximum coverage of the event and consistent attention to safety and security.
Although we recognize that our faculty members are interested in supporting our school team, we remind them that they are assigned to work the event. The safety and security of the venue and all participants is the main reason that they were selected for this assignment. We continually remind our staff of the following points:
The most important part of each meeting is outlining the specific expectations that we have for our event workers. Given the smaller footprint in which we operate and the size of our crowds, we emphasize the importance of consistency and vigilance in carrying out these post orders. At Memorial, the following procedures have been established for our games:
Security for Game Personnel
Once a basketball game at Memorial High school gets underway, among the areas that we are most concerned about are those reserved for team personnel and people assigned to the score table (timer, scorekeepers, statisticians). Given the emotions that can ebb and tide during a high school basketball game, these areas can be particularly vulnerable. For the safety and security of all participants, it is critical that these areas receive additional support and attention.
At Memorial High School, we have established a series of protocols for managing the security needs of these critical areas. Our administration has crafted a one-page document articulating these expectations and shares them in advance of the contest with both home and visiting team personnel. Among the specific components of our game day planning at Memorial are the following:
Athletic directors who may not be familiar with the non-uniformed personnel (coaches, team managers) of a visiting school may want to consider creating an identification system for designating those individuals who are entitled to access the bench and score table areas. The use of badges (on lanyards) creates a visual cue for event security staff that individuals populating those areas are entitled to be there. Some schools assign specific security personnel to stand or sit near team benches; these individuals are there to prevent unwanted individuals from accessing these areas and may also be used to escort teams to and from their locker rooms.
"Exit, Stage Left": Egress Strategies
The work of game administration at a basketball game or other home gymnasium contest does not end when the final buzzer sounds. In some cases, the athletic director must perform some of the most important work of the night during the period when the crowd egresses from the event. The smaller the footprint of the venue, the more difficulty that an athletic director may face in ensuring that everyone leaves the facility safely and in an orderly manner.
At Memorial High School, we recognize that the compact nature of our facility poses challenges to managing traffic in the aftermath of the game. In training our event day staff, we pay specific attention to addressing not only our policies and procedures for our "exit strategy," but also each of their specific responsibilities in managing that work. Our priority always is to get people out of the gym. Other tasks, such as picking up chairs and pushing in bleachers, can wait until later.
Over the years, we have found the following practices to be helpful in managing this work:
We have found these guidelines to be helpful in managing our exit traffic following our games. Other best practices for schools in urban school environments include:
A Countywide Effort
Security at the athletic events in our conference requires a collective effort. The other athletic directors in the HCIAL and I work together to make all venues home and away safe. For example, we are surrounded to the north by North Bergen and to the south by Union City. As you can imagine, both schools are big rivals. On game weeks in all sports, but especially in basketball, we communicate and see what we need from each other. These schools will send additional security and usually one of two of their towns' officers to assist. Safety is a partnership with all involved in Hudson County.
Although we have identified our key areas of concern and response strategies for safety and security at Memorial High School athletic events, we also recognize that our work is on-going. We review all of our procedures on a regular basis and adjust as necessary. Concerns about a specific game or a major county rivalry may require us to adjust or alter our plans. At all times, our primary goal is that our student-athletes and spectators have a positive and safe experience.