Emergency regulations passed by the state school board Tuesday will require that athletic coaches be trained in how to identify traumatic head injuries and that students be pulled out of a game as soon as a concussion is suspected.
School board members indicated that they may beef up the regulations in the next six months, after a task force convenes and makes recommendations on how concussions can be prevented. Several board members said they were willing to have "the uncomfortable conversations" about potentially changing how athletes practice and sports are played.
"I don't know the best way to communicate the seriousness of this issue," said Ivan C.A. Walks, a board member and medical doctor. "We really want to focus on how do we keep kids safe."
The new regulations impose requirements that mirror state guidelines that schools have been following for the past year, according to Edward Sparks, who heads the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association.
The regulations will require local school systems to certify that coaches have received training about concussions. In addition, if players may have received a concussion, they must be pulled off the field and cannot return unless they have clearance from a health care professional. Coaches must send notes home to parents if a student has suffered a blow that could have caused a concussion.
The regulations will be in effect for 180 days while the board takes a deeper look at the issue, including considering how sports practices are held or any other adjustments to sports to prevent injuries.
Tom Hearn, a Montgomery County parent of a boy who sustained a concussion, asked the board in late May to consider adopting regulations, including limits on the number of times a week athletes can have contact during practice. The NFL, the Ivy League and youth football leagues have recently limited the number of times football players can have contact practices a week, but high schools have not.
Hearn said that while he was disappointed that the board had not gone further, he is optimistic that the board is committed to taking action this winter. "I am very pleased with the discussion," he said. "It signals to me that they take this issue very seriously. ... The willingness to pursue unpopular measures was important."
Unfortunately, he said, stronger measures will not be in place on Aug. 11 when sports practices begin for public high school students. "It won't help high school students playing football this fall," he said, adding that there are 15,000 Maryland students who play football.
He said he will continue to press Montgomery County's school board to go further than the state requirements.
Hearn said he would like to have seen a requirement that parents and students have more education about concussions before students begin playing. Videos or other kinds of information would be valuable, he said. School systems now only make sure a parent and student have signed a paper attesting to the fact that they have read a one-page informational handout on concussions.
In addition, Hearn wants school systems to report how many concussions students have each year and what sports those students were playing.
He also supports requiring coaches to call, email or speak to a parent to make sure the parent knows their child needs to be evaluated by a medical professional.
In other business, the school board proposed new discipline regulations that would reduce the use of zero-tolerance policies that give out the harshest punishments for small infractions. The regulations have been the subject of a two-year discussion by the school board over how to decrease the number of suspensions for nonviolent offenses. School systems will have to significantly cut the percentage of African-American and special education students who are suspended.
"I think the practical reality is that it changed the tone of the conversation," said James H. DeGraffenreidt, a school board member who is the former board president. "We are giving people permission to apply their professional judgment and common sense."
Too many principals give out harsh punishments, he believes, because they don't think school system policies allow them to use their discretion.
The public will have 30 days to comment on the proposed regulations before a board vote.