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thumbnail image April Bulletin coverSafety in School Sports and Performing Arts

By Adam Aurand, director of marketing and public relations at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.

March 16 marked the five-year anniversary of a fatal bus crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike involving a women’s lacrosse team from Seton Hill University. A coach and the driver were killed, and several players injured.

For all the headlines about safety in sports – particularly brain injuries from playing football – the accident is a reminder that safety issues range far beyond the playing field. In the aftermath, experts say schools can learn some lessons from the crash that, while unable to prevent the incident, may have helped emergency responders on the scene.

As extracurricular activities, especially athletics and the arts, become more popular and varied, these lessons are rising to the school board level, and districts have a growing responsibility to ensure safety measures are in place.

Major issues

It goes without saying that no one opposes “safety” as a general concept. But the extent to which schools can go to ensure safety among students who are participating in a variety of activities is a more complicated issue.

Dominating the headlines are those injuries sustained during competition, particularly concussions, that can cause health problems later in life. In Pennsylvania, there has also been a lot of attention paid to sudden cardiac arrest.

“We think we are ahead of the curve on those two issues,” says Robert Lombardi, executive director of the PIAA. “Every athlete that participates in the state of Pennsylvania has to sign off that they’re aware of the symptoms and some of the possibilities of concussions as well as the symptoms of cardiac arrest.”

Schools have ramped up training for staff, particularly coaches and school nurses.

“Now [they] have that proper training, they know what the limits are, they know what to look for,” says Davelyn Smeltzer, PSBA’s senior director of Governance Services. “Before, that was always glossed over. Now, folks are aware, it’s not glossed over.”

But there are other issues, out of the spotlight, that schools need to consider. Mark Stutz, director of visual and performing arts at Parkland SD (Lehigh Co.), says his advisers and directors pay attention to things like exposure (hot and cold) for marching band, reactions to performing under warm stage lighting and proper stretching before dance rehearsals.

“It’s really important that people in the arts remember that there can be a significant physical part,” he says. “Take marching band – standing in one place for a long time is not easy. We need to be aware of things like that.”

Policy implications

Most school boards have taken the necessary steps on the policy front, according to Smeltzer.

The state legislature waded into the safety discussion in 2011 with the Safety in Youth Sports Act, which establishes standards for managing concussions and traumatic brain injuries. The act was in response to heightened awareness of the health risks from concussions, especially in professional sports like the National Football League.

Smeltzer says lawmakers wanted to make sure parents were given the right information about traumatic brain injury and add further protection for student athletes.

“We needed to get away from, ‘Oh it’s just a bump on the head, get back in the game,’” she says, and school boards responded by adopting policy that set guidelines for prevention, detection and treatment of concussions.

The following year, the legislature passed the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Prevention Act, which prompted additional board policy.

Then in 2016, new legislation took effect amending the commonwealth’s anti-hazing law, which previously applied only at the post-secondary level. It now includes secondary schools, defined as grades 7-12, and requires that districts adopt a written anti-hazing policy and post it on their website. (See the September/October 2016 issue of the Bulletin for more on the anti-hazing policy changes.)

School directors need to make sure “they have the appropriate administration in place, so students, athletic directors and coaches are properly trained and following the protocol,” Smeltzer advises. “If that’s the case, then [the new policy] will do what it’s designed to do.”

Best practices

Following state law to adopt policy is one thing; it’s another thing entirely to prepare for numerous contingencies when forming a new school organization. Experts recommend schools turn to a partner who is well-versed in risk assessment: insurance agents.

“We make recommendations, not just what insurance you should have, but best practices to mitigate and reduce risk,” says Sharon Orr, manager of risk control services at CM Regent Insurance, a large school district insurer. “You don’t know what the hazards are until you’re given the full picture.”

For example, Orr points out that the Seton Hill team was traveling with rosters that were not current when it was involved in the crash. With coaches incapacitated, first responders spent several hours looking for students who were not on the bus. Likewise, coaches should be seated away from each other, and both with rosters to reduce the likelihood both would suffer injury.

Orr’s company periodically sends risk control teams to the schools they insure to collect information on potential hazards and risks. But insurance agents can also weigh in on any new kind of student organization, athletic program or school event, such as donkey basketball, bonfires and mud runs.

“The bottom line,” she says, “if you are considering implementing a new program, a new offering, make sure you go back and have a conversation not just with the instructor, but talk to your insurance company.” B

Sports-related safety laws

Anyone associated with student extracurriculars, especially coaches and administrators, should be familiar and compliant with the following Pennsylvania legislation.

Safety in Youth Sports Act (2011)

Requires the PA Departments of Education and Health to develop and post on their websites guidelines and other relevant materials to inform and educate students, parents and coaches about the nature and risk of concussion and traumatic brain injury, including the risks associated with continuing to play or practice after a concussion or traumatic brain injury. The law requires students who have suffered a head injury be removed from activity and not allowed to return to play until medically cleared. Coaches must receive annual training.

Access more resources on the School Health page of the Department of Health website.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest Prevention Act (2012)

Requires the PA Departments of Education and Health to develop and post on their websites guidelines and other relevant materials to inform and educate students, parents and coaches about the nature and warning signs of sudden cardiac arrest. The law also requires coaches to receive annual training on sudden cardiac arrest and parents must sign an acknowledgement form before their student can participate in sports. Coaches are required to remove  players that exhibit warning signs of sudden cardiac arrest and may not allow their return to play until medically cleared. 

Access more resources on the School Health page of the Department of Health website.

Anti-Hazing Law (2016) 

Requires that school districts adopt a written anti-hazing policy for grades 7-12 and post it on their website. See the September/October 2016 issue of PSBA Bulletin for more on the Anti-Hazing Law.