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State school board looking into head injuries

Amid an increased awareness of concussions in sports (the NFL and Ivy League universities have limited football practices involving contact), the Maryland state school board is questioning whether action is needed to prevent head injuries in young athletes.

The state school board said Tuesday it would form a group that will include health experts, educators and athletic directors to study whether the state is doing enough to reduce the number of concussions in student athletes. The move follows an increased nationwide focus on brain traumas that football players, particularly in the NFL, have suffered after repeated concussions.

It also follows passage of a state law in 2011 requiring local school systems to certify that coaches in certain sports have watched a training video about concussions. The law recommends that athletes with concussion symptoms be pulled off the field and not allowed to return until a physician has cleared them. Coaches must send home a note to parents if a student has suffered a blow that could have caused a concussion.

Pop Warner youth football league also said recently it would implement new rules for the 2012 season that limit contact drills to one-third of the time athletes practice. In addition, the organization is banning full-speed, head-on blocking and tackling for youth ages 5 to 16.

Thomas Hearn, a Montgomery County parent whose son received a concussion playing football at Walt Whitman High School, has testified before the state school board and Montgomery County school board, asking members to consider requiring parents to get more training in recognizing the signs of concussions and limiting the number of contact practices. He said the new state law doesn't go far enough.

High school students can still have contact practices twice a day and five days a week, Hearn said. While there are no reliable statistics on how many of the 115,000 athletes in public schools in the state suffer concussions while playing sports, he suggested that if you extrapolate from the experience of Virginia school systems that have kept careful records, there may be as many as 6,000 a year in Maryland.

"Between now and the start of football season in August, you need to consider why you shouldn't at least adopt the NFL and Ivy League limits for Maryland high school football," Hearn said in his testimony before the board last month.

In 2011, the NFL limited practices with contact to about one a week. While the NCAA does not have the limits, the Ivy League adopted rules last July that permitted no more than two practices with contact a week.

The limits are intended to reduce the number of concussive hits players experience. Tackles or hits also can produce subconcussive injuries that do not have symptoms but over time have been shown to increase the risk of long-term health issues.

State school board members said they found Hearn's testimony so compelling that they asked for a briefing on the subject.

Edward Sparks, who heads the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, said most teams only have contact practices about twice a week. He said questions have been raised about whether cutting back on contact can "lessen your skills, lessen your technique and increase your chances for other injuries. No one has answered it yet."

Board members repeatedly asked Sparks whether anyone in Maryland is looking into prevention as opposed to actions that should be taken once a student suffers an injury.

"We keep using the word concussion, and what we are really talking about is traumatic brain injuries," said Ivan C.A. Walks, a board member and medical doctor. Walks proposed the board form a committee to look at whether the school board should further regulate sports. Sports issues are usually controlled by the schools' athletic association.

Other organizations have adopted measures to prevent further injury when an athlete suffers a concussion.

The NFL mandates that a player who shows concussion symptoms can't return to practice or a game on the same day. Once removed, the player must not be reinstated "until he is fully asymptomatic, both at rest and after exertion, has normal neurological examination, normal neuropsychological testing, and has been cleared to return." Symptoms include loss of consciousness, confusion, memory loss, dizziness or balance problems, and persistent headaches.

The NCAA similarly bars student-athletes who show concussion symptoms from practice or competition for the remainder of the day. The NCAA also requires that institutions have a plan on file that outlines how to educate student-athletes on head injuries, the process of removing a student-athlete with concussion symptoms and the steps needed for that athlete to be cleared by a physician.

Reporters Zach Helfand and Katherine Dunn contributed to this report.