Northeast Ohio high school football games rocked by fears of violence, threatening slice of Americana | #schoolsaftey

CLEVELAND, Ohio — With their homecoming football game days away, Jamal Jefferson Jr. and his Euclid High School teammates saw a chance to turn around their one-win season.

A winless Brunswick team was slated to visit Euclid Community Stadium on Sept. 29 for the tilt. Things changed, however, on the eve of the game, when Euclid school officials announced they were moving the contest to Brunswick because of fears over violence. The homecoming parade was also scratched.

“When we got the news, everybody dropped their heads,” recalled Jefferson, a senior wide receiver and safety.

Euclid is hardly alone among area high school football teams facing sudden gameday adjustments in recent weeks. In each instance, school decisionmakers cited violence, or the threat of it, as their reasoning. The episodes have resulted in a near forfeit, two relocations and games in which fan attendance was either limited or barred outright.

The trouble began on Sept. 14, when threats were made at Shaker Heights High School, police reported. The incident prompted administrators to ban spectators and bands from the home game that night against Maple Heights.

Two weeks later, after fights broke out on and around Euclid’s campus, the school announced the football team’s relocation to Brunswick. Punches had also been thrown at Euclid’s two previous home games, leading to arrests and at least one hospitalization, police reports show. In addition, the school canceled classes earlier that month because of a threat circulating on social media.

Days later, Solon High School’s football squad, scheduled to travel to Euclid that Friday, pulled out of the contest over safety concerns after neither side could agree on a playing site. Euclid administrators ultimately found a team from Michigan to make the trip for the school’s senior night.

But unease followed Euclid’s team to its Oct. 13 matchup at rival Cleveland Heights. Officials for that school limited attendance to family members of players, band members and cheerleaders over safety precautions, they said.

That same day, the trend hit Cleveland, when a 15-year-old was shot just outside Cleveland Central Catholic High School in the city’s Broadway-Slavic Village neighborhood. The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, which runs the school, responded by moving the football team’s homecoming game to an off-site location the next day. It also postponed the homecoming dance. A 15-year-old was arrested the day of the shooting, and the victim was hospitalized, police reported.

What began as a seemingly isolated incident in Shaker Heights has evidently become a pattern, threatening a campus culture as American as apple pie. Now, as Ohio wraps its regular football season this weekend, some wonder if its Friday night lights are in danger of dimming because of lurking violence — or, in the alternative, the recent upheaval is merely a blip, destined to be forgotten once the playoffs commence.

“It’s disheartening,” said Ayana Fakhir, a Shaker Heights supporter whose son was a senior on the 2021 team, criticizing restrictions on fan attendance. “It’s like wow, these kids have earned the right to play in front as large an audience we can find.”

But based on the national picture, violence at high school football games is a looming reality for school districts facing tough decisions.

According to David Riedman, a Florida-based data scientist who runs the K-12 School Shooting Database, there have been 34 shootings at American middle- and high-school sporting events since August, a tally on pace to surpass the 38 shootings between August and November of last year. The number has jumped from 21 in 2019 and just 13 in 2005, Riedman says. Nearly all the shootings occurred at football games.

“Post-pandemic, there have been more shootings at high school games each year than in any year across the prior decade,” said Riedman.

The incidents this fall are numbing. In Utica, New York, a security guard was shot in the head trying to break up a fight at a game. At a contest in Choctaw, Oklahoma, a 16-year-old was killed and three others were wounded by gunfire as players and fans sprinted for safety. A double-shooting at a game in Port Allen, Louisiana, took the life of a 15-year-old.

Similar to Cleveland, threats and violence have forced the cancellations and postponements of games in a swath of American cities and towns.

“We’re just flat-out seeing horrific behaviors become worse,” said Karissa Niehoff, CEO of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which writes the playing rules for U.S. high school football. “I’m very concerned.”

A growing problem

Thom McDaniels, the storied Northeast Ohio high school football coach and father of Las Vegas Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels, recalls a time when post-game parking lot skirmishes might have gotten out of hand, but that was about it.

“I don’t recall a game in my 40 years that was either moved to a different site because of the threat of violence or violence,” said McDaniels, who won a national title while helming Canton McKinley and did coaching stints at other area schools, including Solon, before retiring in 2014.

But as violence at U.S. high school football games has become so ugly in recent years, national officials are beginning to voice their alarm.

When facing legitimate threats, Niehoff says, administrators are wise to shut games down on the spot.

“The safest thing is to cancel (or) postpone,” she said. “We don’t let kids play when there’s lightning, so why would you play if there’s a threat of physical violence?”

But that philosophy doesn’t sit well with Kenneth S. Trump, a Cleveland-based consultant who runs National School Safety and Security Services and has tracked violence at high school sporting events for two decades. Like many Northeast Ohioans, Trump, who once served for the school safety division of the Cleveland City Schools, believes high school football reflects the core of a community.

But rather than cancel or reschedule games, the best response to a threat of violence is to establish a coordinated game-day plan, he said. Such measures go beyond security staffing, to include tailored assignments to prevent what he calls “cop clump,” hotspot patrols around places like concession areas, physical barriers between home- and away-team fans, bag policies, trainings for public announcers and coordination with law enforcement.

“Nobody wants to argue about the phrase ‘abundance of caution,’ but is it really that, or are you just not willing to put in the required cost, time and effort to beef up security and carry on?” he said.

Riedman, the Florida data scientist, agrees that standardized plans can be helpful for school districts, many of which lack resources and training. But he questions whether certain measures can make a meaningful difference.

“There’s no quick policy decision that solves these problems,” he said. “Adding eight or 16 or 50 police officers, you still aren’t going to be able to control the behavior of thousands of people.”

A better approach is to invest in public education, he says. He also calls on local college and NFL teams, with robust security operations, to offer aid to local high schools.

Some have suggested that moving night games to daytime hours might prevent violence. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Senate League, for example, plays its games on Friday afternoons.

Riedman is doubtful such a method would make a difference, citing several shootings this fall that occurred during day games, including the incident in Utica that wounded the security guard.

“This is not a nighttime vs. daytime thing,” he said. “They happen in mornings, afternoons and evenings.”

Added Trump: “That’s just kicking the can down the road and sort of caving in.”

Early morning games on Saturdays might seem to be an option, as troublemakers would still be asleep at kickoff. But the games would provide a major scheduling problem for schools, coaches and parents, who would be forced to have players arrive well before dawn for travel and warmups.

Communities react

Following the impacted games in Greater Cleveland in recent weeks, community members voiced their discontent. Alumni groups vented on online forums, while fans and players grappled with what might have felt like a new normal.

“We were mad, but as a team, I think we worked through it in a good way,” said Jefferson, the Euclid player. “It was just so much going on, and we got the backlash of that.”

Cleveland Heights coach Mac Stephens agreed.

“It hurts me to see those Euclid kids go through this,” said Stephens, who serves by day as Euclid’s recreation director. “They’re not getting the full high school experience, which just isn’t fair to them.”

Christopher Papouras, Euclid’s superintendent, said the fights on Sept. 26, one on the campus and others nearby, prompted the decision to move the matchup. He said the district had trouble identifying several of the people involved. While acknowledging that high school sports are part of the community fabric, “We didn’t want to invite the outside element to the game,” he said.

Two years ago, a game between Cleveland Heights and home team Euclid was marred by a student brawl, followed by a postgame gunshot in the parking lot.

Euclid police say they support the high school’s decisions and pledged assistance on gamedays. “Every available car is in the area,” said Capt. Mitch Houser, a Euclid police spokesman. “Violence is not just a Euclid thing. It happens at most high school football games.”

Euclid school officials stressed that they were prepared to host the game against Solon, following meetings with city leaders and police.

Other school representatives responded about their decisions in this way:

· “This is about student safety, and we were not confident in the plans that Euclid had in place given their actions in canceling their Homecoming Parade and moving their game (against Brunswick) out of Euclid,” Solon school officials said in a statement.

· Shaker Heights Superintendent David Glasner deferred questions this week to a spokesperson who declined further comment. Mayor David Weiss declined to comment.

· The Cleveland diocese said that it “moved the football game (involving Cleveland Central Catholic) to the away field and postponed the homecoming dance out of an abundance of caution after the incident last Friday at the school.”

· and The Plain Dealer reached out to the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district, which governs Cleveland Heights High School.

Euclid Mayor Kirsten Holzheimer Gail said the recent tumult does not reflect her city.

“The unfortunate thing is that the media focuses on these events, and that’s all they cover, and people outside of Euclid think that’s all that happens here, and that’s not the case,” she said, ticking off positive community events that don’t make headlines.

For frustrated fans who lost the chance to cheer on their beloved Panthers this year, she added, “please know we’re working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

A spokesperson for Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb’s office also weighed in with a statement: “High school sports are a cultural emblem of Cleveland’s competitiveness and pride. … We need our residents’ support to uplift our community to one that is centered on respect and kindness.”

Reasons for the violence

There are many theories for the rise in violence at school sporting events. In many states, including Ohio, loosening firearm laws have made it significantly easier to obtain and carry a gun, helping fuel an increase in shootings in cities like Cleveland.

Beyond that, social media has made it easier for threats to reverberate quickly among a student body. And experts say that youth culture is still feeling the effects of a pandemic that interrupted their social development.

Pair those elements with the violent institution that is football, and it stands to reason that stadiums can become crime scenes, says Russell E. Ward, a Francis Marion University professor, an Ohio native and an expert on the sociology of high school sports.

Most perpetrators of violence at high school sporting events are young and male, some of whom feel overshadowed by the stars on the field, which can trigger outbursts, Ward says.

“One way a young male can get a sense of power and control is to disrupt something that is powerful, and for some, this is football, the last bastion of masculinity,” he said. Attendees who feel marginalized “can’t make a name for themselves by throwing the 50-yard pass, but they can show up to a game and exercise some power and control.”

That said, Ward is hesitant to say that America is mired in an epidemic of violence at games, absent any academic data. He also sees no evidence of a rise in violence-related game cancellations, a conclusion other officials echo.

“This situation has happened a few times in Ohio, but not very often,” said Tim Stried, spokesman for the Columbus-based Ohio High School Athletic Association.

Niehoff, of the National Federation of State High School Associations, acknowledges that some games — and indeed entire seasons — have been canceled because of violence, but she sees no evidence of a spike. Most cancellations are the result of referees bowing out, she noted. During the pandemic, high school sports lost 50,000 officials — mainly because of the behavior of parents and fans, Niehoff said.

Perhaps the main reason that violence-related cancellations are limited is because most aggression at football games is spontaneous, not planned, experts say.

On Friday night, Euclid traveled to Mentor to close its regular season without fan restrictions in place, creating a feeling of normalcy. But that didn’t wipe away the team’s frustration over how the final month of its schedule played out.

“Obviously they’re not happy about it,” said Tony Fisher, Euclid’s athletic director who has been coaching the football team since the season’s third week.

Fisher, who starred at Euclid in the 1990s as a running back before playing for the University of Notre Dame, the Green Bay Packers and the St. Louis Rams, could not recall any game cancellations during his high school days.

“What’s going on now, I haven’t seen that,” he said. “It’s the times we are in. At the end of the day, we’re just trying to make sure people are safe.”

The repercussions of the situation impacted Euclid’s season at a critical point for its players, including Jefferson, who has a handful of Division I college scholarship offers and looked back at the Brunswick game as a missed opportunity.

“I feel like that affected our momentum,” he said. “The fans, they excite us. We didn’t have that in Brunswick. They had their fans out there, and that affected us.”

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