Do New Laws Work?

December 1, 2017

A 2015 concussion law in Illinois has led to a rise in reported head injuries among high school athletes, which many are saying is a sign of its success. But small schools have struggled to implement the legislation’s requirements, leading some to suggest there is still work to do.

According to an article for NPR WVIK, the 2015 law set new precedents for both return-to-play and return-to-learn procedures for high school athletes who suffer a concussion. Under the law, each school district must have a concussion oversight team, and athletes are only allowed to return to play after being cleared by a physician, athletic trainer, advanced practice nurse, or physician’s assistant. Most protocols also involve a lengthy physical test that the athlete must complete.

“[The legislation] has increased the numbers for sure,” says Brett Western, MD, a Sports Medicine Specialist at the Springfield Clinic in Springfield, Ill. “Coaches, [athletic] trainers and officials are recognizing [head injuries], and these kids can’t return to play.”

As for the classroom, school districts are required to establish individualized accommodations after an athlete suffers a concussion to help integrate them back into their work. This could include giving them extra time to finish homework or letting tests be broken up and taken at different times.

However, some smaller schools are unable to afford the standards set forth by the 2015 law. To accommodate their needs, the bill requires that a team must have a physician, but only if it’s affordable. Other options include an athletic trainer or school nurse, if affordable. If none of those options are feasible, the school must only appoint a person to be in charge on concussions.

The potential downside of this, some say, is that this could lead to concussions going unnoticed and unreported.

“There’s lots of smaller schools that don’t have access,” says Dr. Western. “We see the vast majority of our concussion kids from schools we have athletic trainers at. I don’t think that’s because they’re the only schools that have concussions. I think it’s because those are the schools where we have trained professionals picking them up.”

For example, at Northwestern High School in Palmyra, Ill., there is no full-time athletic trainer on staff. However, the school partners with Passavant Hospital in Jacksonville, Ill., which provides an athletic trainer for football games at no cost. The athletic trainer also visits the school each week, if possible, to check on student-athletes who have been injured.

But because the athletic trainer does not attend every Northwestern athletic event, athletes who sustain possible head injuries during games must sit out for the remainder of the contest until they can be seen by the appropriate medical professional. Northwestern’s coaches and administrators are in charge of making these decisions, which they can then be held liable for.

Funding assistance from the state might be one of the only ways small schools can meet all the standards of the 2015 law, but Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, a sponsor of the legislation, says this isn’t possible due to the current state of education funding in Illinois. In the meantime, coaches throughout Illinois do say that the law has been successful in helping everyone understand the risks that can accompany athletics and head injuries.

“We have two parent meetings, one at the beginning of summer and one right before the season starts,” says Springfield (Ill.) High School Head Football Coach Roy Gully. “One of the main reasons we hold two parent meetings is so I can get with them twice to communicate our injury protocol.”

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