WICHITA FALLS, Texas (TNN) - At Midwestern State University’s Fall Commencement in December, there was something new.
Not the hundreds of excited new graduates, the freshly printed diplomas, or the realization that it’s time to start paying off student loans. The University’s new clear bag policy.
“We’ve only now begun to see Wichita Falls as a destination that could provide more opportunity for danger since you see the shootings that have happened around us and so we thought it was time to step up and secure commencement,” MSU Texas President Dr. Suzanne Shipley said.
The clear bag policy was new to commencement but not to MSU Texas. Dr. Shipley and her team first introduced the policy for home football games at Memorial Stadium in the 2019 season.
MSU Texas Police Chief Patrick Coggins said the policy was met with resistance at first, but they have had an overall positive response with little to no issues.
“But overall, it’s been a positive response, and we haven’t had much issue with it," Chief Coggins said.
While the policy was the first-of-its-kind in Wichita Falls, security improvements aren’t new to event venues in our region:
- The NFL instituted clear bag rules for all its stadiums, including the home of the Dallas Cowboys, in 2013.
- Texas A&M University added the policy in 2016.
- The University of Texas and University of Oklahoma followed in 2017 and 2018.
- FC Dallas made clear bags a requirement at their home park in 2018.
- The NBA does not require clear bags but did ban backpacks and other large bags in 2017.
- American Airlines Center in Dallas also banned backpacks and other large bags for all its events in 2017.
- In early January, Dallas ISD announced a clear bag policy at sporting events after a student was shot at a high school basketball game.
A trip to nearly all those venues includes a walk through a metal detector.
So why are venues investing in extra security?
Everything changed in 2013 after the Boston Marathon bombing. Three people were killed and several hundred others were injured, including 16 people who lost limbs.
Everything changed again in May 2017 after the Ariana Grande concert bombing in Manchester, England. 23 people died and more than a hundred were injured – more than half of them children.
Things changed once again in October of 2017 after the Las Vegas music festival massacre – an extremely hard event to secure, where 58 people were killed and hundreds were hurt as gunfire rained down from a 32nd floor hotel room.
There’s clearly no perfect way to secure large events but law enforcement agencies work hard to do the best they can. Wichita Falls Police Department Sergeant Harold McClure said large events are hard to secure.
“The challenges of it? Just a lot of people,” Sgt. McClure said. “There’s a lot of planning that goes into it. We have officers that you see, and we have officers that you don’t see.”
Some of the harder events to secure include the Hotter’N Hell Hundred and 4th of July events at the MPEC.
“Even though we could have ten officers, we could have 100 officers working that event, however, we’re humans, we can’t see everything,” Sgt. McClure said.
The Police Department will call in as many officers as they can without taking away from keeping the peace in the rest of the city.
Back at MSU Texas, the clear bag idea was originally brought up by the Athletics Department, which saw the policy working for other schools in the Lone Star Conference.
Midwestern State’s leaders discussed the policy and other security enhancements for months. They even asked the Department of Homeland Security for help.
“We looked at the number of safety concepts we could implement and we looked at the cost and we looked at the convenience to our parents and our families," Dr. Shipley said.
"We came at about halfway.”
“What you’re seeing now is not only the law enforcement out there on the scene but also a physical security implementation barrier to kind of move the perimeter out start ensuring that it’s a safe environment from moving out and in,” Chief Coggins said.
Clear bags weren’t the only safety enhancement. Other measures were introduced that weren’t visible to the public.
“The best security is the security that’s there but that’s invisible so to speak,” Chief Coggins said.
Are the enhancements necessary? Dr. Shipley and Chief Coggins said they absolutely are.
“I saw it for the first time at Cowboys Stadium four years ago, but that was a very big venue with a lot of potential danger," Dr. Shipley said. "When you think of our little Memorial Stadium with the crowd, you don’t think of that as dangerous but we ultimately matured to need that level of security for all of the outside things we do.”
“For mass gatherings especially, which are especially susceptible to certain kinds of threats, it’s becoming necessary to ensure security’s up to par,” Chief Coggins said. “They’re soft targets, they’re becoming a good target for those who would wish to do harm to people.”
While protection at large events is a necessity, security does cost money.
“This takes coordination." Chief Coggins said. “This takes resources.”
An alarm system or a gun can cost homeowners hundreds to thousands of dollars and paying for a security team is no different. But neither Dr. Shipley nor Chief Coggins hesitated when asked if the money was worth it.
“It’s always worth the financial investment if people enjoy a ceremony safely,” Dr. Shipley said.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Chief Coggins said. "So I think it’s money well spent.”
The City of Wichita Falls owns the MPEC and hired private company Spectra to operate it in 2016. While the venue does have rules about what can not be brought inside – they have no way to enforce those rules because they don’t have a clear bag policy, and they don’t feature bag checks or metal detectors.
We reached out to city officials and Spectra to find out if security improvements are on the way. They told us Spectra makes all the decisions and Spectra management has not responded to our voicemails.
As for MSU Texas, Chief Coggins said they’ll continue to fine-tune their clear bag policy to make it as convenient as possible without sacrificing safety.
And will the University’s focus on security continue? Leaders said yes, because what they have to protect against is constantly changing.
“Who would have thought five years ago that social media would have been a driver for feeling safe or not safe,” Dr. Shipley said. “Now it’s much more of a bellwether of how people are feeling and who knows in the next five years what will change that.”
“I think as we progress in the future, you will see this implemented at other mass gathering-type events,” Chief Coggins said.
“I think it’s a sad commentary on the present state of things when we have to enhance security for mass gatherings but they are susceptible to certain physical threats and in today’s world, I think we need to do what we can to mitigate those threats.”
News Channel 6 will not stop asking questions to keep Texoma safe. While security enhancements might slow entry to an event, News Channel 6 thinks anything is worth it to help keep Texoma safe.