City Responds to New State Concussion Rules

First of three parts
By Christine Kilgore
Special to the Falls Church Times
Sept. 2, 2014

A little-noticed amendment to Virginia’s student-athlete concussion law aims to go beyond high school athletics and also protect recreational athletes. And Falls Church City officials are evaluating how best to respond.

The law-revised this spring in the Virginia legislature -now requires recreational sports teams that use public school property to develop policies for “identifying and handling” suspected concussions.

The new rules took many by surprise, including Daniel Schlitt, director of the City’s Recreation and Parks Department. He learned of the new requirement toward the end of the 2013-14 school year from George Mason High School Athletic Director Tom Horn, who offered assistance to the department as it works to implement the rules.

“This is the first time we’ll be dealing with a [major] health and safety issue,” Schlitt said.

The department administers programs in flag football, basketball, and soccer that utilize Falls Church City Public Schools space. Once a policy is adopted for these teams, Schlitt said, it likely would be utilized across-the-board for all youth sports teams administered by the department.

It is unlikely that a concussion policy will be in place for the fall sports season, he told the Falls Church Times, adding that a legal review by the City’s attorney would be the first step.

State Senator Richard Stuart and Delegate Richard Anderson, who sponsored the House version of the new law, both said they were driven by the urgings of Michelle and Gil Trenum of Nokesville, whose 17-year-old son Austin took his life in 2010, two days after suffering his second concussion during a football game.

“The Trenums always pointed out that while Virginia had passed legislation to protect youth in high school sports, this didn’t extend to other teams and other youth,” Anderson said.

For Sen. Stuart, a concussion his son suffered at the age of 15 also was eye-opening. “He had to stay in a dark room with no stimulation…I had no idea that it [a concussion and its treatment] was so serious,” he said, adding that he also more fully understands now that multiple concussions or sub-concussive injuries can have a cumulative impact on the brain.

Virginia’s initial concussion law, passed in 2010, requires high school student-athletes to be removed from play when a concussion is suspected, and not to return until cleared by a health care provider (a definition that, in this law, includes athletic trainers). The law also mandated that school divisions develop their own policies and procedures, and that they annually educate students, parents, coaches, and other school staff about concussions.

FCCPS had been ahead of the curve with its attention to head injury and its use of neurocognitive testing to aid in diagnosis prior to the state mandate, but it subsequently developed and adopted a policy, “Student-Athlete Concussions During Extracurricular Activities,” in 2011.

The state’s new amendment stipulates that “non-interscholastic youth sports programs utilizing school property” should either adopt and follow the policy of the local school division, or develop their own policy, as long as it’s consistent with the local school division’s policy or the Virginia Board of Education’s guidelines for policies.

Sponsors of the state’s amendment say it is not meant to be cumbersome, but rather to further sensitize coaches and to promote more awareness. “Nobody expects [experts] to be engaged at the sidelines,” said Sen. Stuart. “But certainly, there are signs of concussion that can be observed [and acted upon].”

Athletes who have sustained concussions may appear dazed or move clumsily, answer questions slowly, or be unsure of a score, an opponent, or an instruction. Symptoms athletes can feel include headache, blurry vision, or simply “not feeling right.”

Unfortunately, such signs and symptoms may not be apparent for hours-or longer-after injury. Various sideline assessment tools are available and are utilized at George Mason and other Washington-area high schools, but appropriate training is required and false negatives are still a problem.

In this sense, the new requirement takes Falls Church City and other communities in the state into important but uncharted territory. Among the questions that may arise as City officials craft a policy are: What tools and assessment processes can best be learned and utilized by volunteer coaches? How much training is required? To what extent should coaches follow up after concussions are suspected? To what extent can and should parks and recreation departments work with local school systems?

George Mason’s Tom Horn said Falls Church City’s small size may be advantageous.

“In an ideal world, in a community like ours, we’d have an extensive partnership, where the school facilities and technology would help [the recreation department] implement its own policy….and where we’d follow the same educational requirements [for returning to the classroom, instance],” he said. ” But if they’d ever want to do baseline [neurocognitive] testing of all youth participants, then we’d have a huge resource issue.”

In terms of enforcement, the law says local school divisions “should not be required to enforce compliance” with the new policies. Sen. Stuart and Del. Anderson both said, however, that it would be up to school divisions to ensure that recreational programs using their fields have policies in place.

A similar version of the amendment was introduced in the 2013 legislative session but failed in the House Education subcommittee over concerns about possible legal liability of coaches. In 2014, legislators “took out provisions that could have exposed volunteer coaches to legal liability,” Rep. Anderson said.

Tomorrow: In FCCPS, Return-to-Learn Protocols Are Well-Seasoned

September 1, 2014 


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