'A quiet phenomenon': The rise of gun violence at school sports

Fans pass through metal detectors to enter a high school football game at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile. The school district increased security after two mass shootings at the stadium in three years. Edmund D. Fountain for ESPN

MOBILE, Ala. -- Security was tight for Vigor High School's homecoming game against rival Williamson last October. Tyrone Lea III and Christopher Dunn were among the hundreds of fans who gathered at Mobile's 40,000-seat Ladd-Peebles Stadium, filing past metal detectors, uniformed police officers and security guards.

The school system increased security after nine people were shot near the end of a 2019 high school football game at the stadium, which in turn, occurred just months after a shooting at a high school basketball game nearby.

Midway through the fourth quarter, with the game out of reach, Dunn and Lea decided to leave. As the high school seniors made their way down an exit ramp, there was a commotion and then, suddenly, gunfire.

"We just heard shots," Dunn, 18, told ESPN. "And we were the ones getting hit." Dunn said he tried to run but fell after he was hit. Lea was shot in the hand and thigh. Three other people were also wounded.

The incidents in Mobile are indicative of a national increase in gun violence at high school sporting events -- and the difficulty school and law enforcement officials face in combating the rise.

This trend was further highlighted this week, when a 14-year-old high school football player was killed and four other teens were wounded while leaving a scrimmage in Philadelphia. The victims were walking off the field at Roxborough High School Tuesday afternoon when five people emerged from an SUV and opened fire, police said.

Over the past decade, shootings occurred at school sporting events at least 171 times, leaving 22 people dead and 171 wounded, according to The K-12 School Shooting Database. During the 2021 football season, there was at least one shooting at a high school game somewhere in the country for 12 consecutive weeks, according to the database, which is assembled from news reports from around the country.

In total, 2021 saw 38 incidents where six people died and 35 were wounded. This year is on pace to be the most violent yet, with 37 shootings as of Sept. 28 that have left three dead and 34 injured. As recently as 2014, the database recorded just nine such cases for the year.

The rise mirrors an overall surge in gun violence on school property, which has nearly doubled since 2018, according to the database. Researchers point to the increasing presence of guns as a major culprit. The shootings have occurred in virtually every region of the country but are most tightly clustered in states in the South and the Midwest with fewer gun restrictions, analysts have found.

"It is just the classic idea that when more guns are around the more likely it is that they are going to be used," said James Densley, cofounder of the Violence Project, a research center aimed at reducing gun violence.

Overall, only about one in six shootings on school property over the past five years occurred in connection with an athletic event, according to the database. Still, advocates say, national policymakers who have responded strongly after in-school shootings should pay more attention to violence happening outside the classroom.

"This is a quiet phenomenon that people were not even aware of until recently," Densley said.

School massacres like those in Newtown, Connecticut, Parkland, Florida, or Uvalde, Texas, have prompted state and federal officials to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for enhanced security and other measures. By contrast, the response to gun violence at school athletic events has been largely low-budget and piecemeal. Researchers say these shootings are frequently overlooked because of the relatively low number of victims in each incident and because the communities where they tend to occur are often beset by violence.

"When you have a shooting at a game, you have all the same challenges you face with one of those indiscriminate attacks but there is no victims fund and there is no massive funding package from the state," said David Riedman, a criminologist and founder of the K-12 School Shooting Database. "When one of these 'lesser' school shootings happens, you have all the same challenges with none of the help."

ANGELA TENNANT SAID she rarely went to high school football games. But the Nov. 15, 2019, playoff game at New Jersey's Pleasantville High School was the talk of the town, and her 10-year-old son Micah, who played youth league football, wanted to be there.

"He kept asking, 'Can we go? Can we go?'" Tennant recalled in an interview with ESPN. "It was a big thing for Pleasantville. Basically, the game was going to be lit. Everybody was going to be at this game."

Tennant, Micah and his older sister were sitting in the bleachers when they were startled by the sound of gunshots midway through the third quarter. Fans scattered for cover. Players tried to protect themselves by lying flat on the field. Tennant told her children to run, but Micah did not move. At first, she thought he was paralyzed by fear. She poked him, and he still did not move. Then his eyes turned glassy.

"He was trying to say 'mom,' but it wasn't coming out," Tennant said. "Then I realized he had been shot and that is when the blood and stuff started coming out of his mouth."

Micah died five days later from a bullet wound to the neck. Two other spectators were injured in the shooting. Authorities charged a 31-year-old man, who they said was gunning for someone else, with Micah's murder.

Since her son's death, Tennant said she has gone through a range of emotions -- denial, shock, grief, depression. "I really just feel like I'm in the twilight zone," she said. She and her family sued the Pleasantville Board of Education and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, alleging that they failed in their duty to make the football field safe the night that Micah was shot.

"There were a lot of police there, but they were more so watching the game, not screening," Tennant said. "They could have had metal detectors."

The lawsuit alleges there was a history of violence at Pleasantville High School that should have prompted officials to do more to protect fans at football games. Between 2017 and 2021, authorities responded to 835 calls from the school for violations ranging from fights to weapons possession, the suit alleges. It also says that a year before the shooting, the Pleasantville Board of Education began using metal detectors to screen people attending board meetings -- a precaution administrators did not extend to football games until after Micah's death.

Pleasantville officials did not respond to requests for comment from ESPN. But in their legal response, lawyers for the school system and the NJSIAA argued in part that the shooting was "caused by the negligence of persons and entities over whom the Defendants had no control."

High school games, especially football and basketball, draw relatively large crowds of young people amid often lax security, making them hotspots for disputes. Add firearms to the mix, and altercations can quickly escalate. In addition, safety measures such as metal detectors and coordinated security patrols are more the exception than the rule.

Schools often deploy security guards, off-duty police officers, teachers and administrators to staff football games and other sporting events. But many school district budgets are already strained by competing demands that have been heightened by the coronavirus pandemic. Few have the resources to offer comprehensive security training for athletic events.

"In many cases, somebody decides on Monday that they want to hire a couple of off-duty officers for a game on Friday or Saturday night, and that is the beginning and the end of the security planning for a school football game or a basketball game," said Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a security consulting firm based in Cleveland.

But there is much more to making school sporting events safe than just having police and security staffing on site, Trump said. Officers and security guards should have specific assignments -- patrolling concourses, checking restrooms, keeping an eye on concession stands -- as well as communications and contingency plans in case a shooting or other emergency occurs. They should coordinate with local police and others about securing parking lots and the entire perimeter of an event. A good plan should also include a set policy for ticket sales, rules for going in and out of a venue, bag policies and metal detectors.

"That is a heck of a lot more than what used to be necessary 10 or 20 years ago," Trump said. "But there is an economic tradeoff for all of that. Who is paying for the security personnel and police officers? Historically, we have done it on the cheap."

The problem is made worse when police assigned to games become overwhelmed when shots are fired.

On the night of Aug. 27, 2021, as three Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, police officers monitored the crowd leaving a football game at Academy Park High School, they heard gunfire. Two men had gotten into a gun fight nearby, investigators later found, but the officers mistakenly thought someone in a passing car had fired at them. All three of the officers responded, firing a total of 25 shots at the car.

The bullets shattered the car's windows but flew past the vehicle toward the postgame crowd. One struck 8-year-old Fanta Bility, who was leaving the game with her family. Fanta was later pronounced dead at a local hospital, according to a lawsuit filed by her family. Her sister and two others were also injured. The Sharon Hill police department fired the three officers, and they now face criminal charges.

AFTER THE SHOOTING in Mobile last October, doctors were able to reattach Lea's finger, but it was achy and swollen for months. His father, Tyrone Lea Jr., says the shooting has left his son with a slight limp and a damaged sense of security.

Nearly a year after being shot, the 19-year-old remains shaken. He graduated from high school last spring but has been struggling to resume a full social life.

"I don't like going outside after what happened," he said. "I don't like being around a lot of people."

Dunn, meanwhile, spent five days in the hospital where he underwent surgery to repair intestinal damage. He was working at a pizza shop recently, and said he is recovering mentally. But he still experiences lingering pain.

"I can't stand up for a long period of time," he said. "And when I bend over, my stomach starts hurting."

Authorities charged three suspects in the case, which has yet to go to trial. Police said they entered the football game unarmed, left and returned once the metal detectors were removed. One of them then opened fire during an altercation that authorities have called a dispute between rival gangs.

The shooting left Mobile once again scrambling to figure out how to keep fans safe. Initially, they stopped scheduling games at Ladd-Peebles. But players and fans wanted to play in the college-size stadium under the Thursday and Friday night lights.

In late August, football returned to Ladd-Peebles after almost a year -- with additional security protocols. At a recent game on a warm Thursday night, Andy Gatewood, the Mobile school system's director of safety and security, oversaw the scene as the sparse crowd filtered through the metal detector at one of two entrance gates. Guards searched bags. Two gun-sniffing canines patrolled the outside of the stadium to ensure nobody snuck in or hid weapons on the property. In addition to Mobile police, there were school administrators, school resource officers and 20 new private security guards.

Mobile schools communications director Rena Philips wouldn't say how much the increased security cost but told ESPN that the school system had negotiated reduced rent with the stadium and signed a new concession agreement that freed money to pay for it.

"We are doing whatever it takes to keep people safe," Philips said.

Once inside, the fans spread out over the vast expanse of bleachers to enjoy the game, as security guards eyed the concourses and the bathrooms. With the new plan in place, Gatewood said he felt sure that going forward, everyone in Mobile would be safe at a high school game.

"It's costly," he said. "But we believe now it's airtight."

ESPN's John Mastroberardino contributed to this report.