2013-07-19 / Front Page

New policy for injuries

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – For the most part, discussions about head injuries among children is mostly limited to athletic activities such as football and hockey. Last year, as parents and athletes became increasingly aware of the dangers of head injuries, the Maine Legislature enacted a law requiring public school districts to have a uniform concussion policy.

But the state mandate did not specifically speak to the academic activities of those affected with a concussion, and did not include language for non-athletes.

The South Portland Board of Education adopted a new policy July 8 on management of concussions and head injuries that extends beyond athletes to all schoolchildren in the city.

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Kathy Germani said the new policy came as a result of a state law enacted last year. The law mandates a uniform concussion policy among all public school departments in Maine, but the board of education went above and beyond the requirements of the legislature.

“The concern the board had was that the language was specific to athletes,” Germani said.

While athletes are certainly at a higher risk of suffering a concussion than most, especially at the high school level, board members noted head injuries could happen on the playground or over the weekend, and all staff members should be attuned to the symptoms of a head injury.

The new document requires school personnel to “accommodate a gradual return to full participation in academic activities” for a student suffering from the symptoms of a head injury, and requires full participation in academics before students can take part in nonacademic activities.

The board unanimously passed a second reading of the policy at Monday’s meeting.

Germani said she is not aware of any other school department that added this sort of academic language into the required new policy.

High school athletic trainer John Ryan said he was pleased the new policy widened the scope in describing the effect concussions can have on a student’s academic performance. Ryan said when a student is suspected to have suffered a concussion, he immediately emails school nurse Eileen Spencer, who then coordinates with the student’s teachers about accommodations, whether it is giving the student extra time to take a test or some oneon one time in the classroom.

“By in large, teachers understand it’s not just an athletic injury; it does impact the kids in the classroom,” Ryan said.

On the athletic side, the new policy codifies concussion management policies that most schools, including South Portland High School, already have in place, Athletic Director Todd Livingston wrote in an email.

Steve Stinson, the varsity football coach at South Portland High School, said although all coaches are trained to recognize and respond to head injuries, that task is generally left to Ryan.

“It’s all out of my hands, which I’m very happy about,” Stinson said.

If a player is suspected to have a concussion, Ryan will perform a few cognitive tests on the spot. If there are positive signs of a head injury, Ryan will tell Stinson the player is done for the night. There is no discussion or back and forth, and the decision is left up to the trainer, not the coach.

If the player was taken out of a Friday game, Stinson said, he will rest Saturday and Sunday. The affected student will be asked Monday to take an “ImPACT test,” which measures symptoms and brain function against a baseline taken by all players. Should that test go well, the player will resume light physical activity without pads Tuesday before further testing, because symptoms can reappear after physical activity.

If the player gets through the week with no signs of a concussion, he is theoretically able to play in the next week’s game. Should any signs of a concussion reappear however, the player takes two mandatory days off and the process starts over, all at Ryan’s discretion.

The protocols and the presence of a full-time athletic trainer are vital to decreasing head injuries, but Stinson said changing attitudes in the game are equally important. Coaches no longer use terms like “you got a ding,” “you got a stinger,” or “you got your bell rung” and throw a player back in the game.

There is more awareness among the players as well, according to Stinson. He played as a lineman for the University of Maine football team in the 1990s, when the team still kept smelling salts in the locker room to wake players up. One day, before a game at the University of Rhode Island, he walked into the trainer’s office with what he now realizes were concussion symptoms, and essentially fainted in a chair. At the time, he thought he was simply dehydrated.

“You never think anything like that is happening unless you get flat knocked out. Everything else you consider wear and tear. I wasn’t trying to hide anything, I just thought I wasn’t feeling well that day,” Stinson said

The new head injury policy will into effect in plenty of time for the 2013-2014 athletic season. Preseason practices for fall sports teams, including football, start Monday, Aug. 19.

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