As Disney leaves Howard, kids' safety a lasting priority


IF YOU'VE FOLLOWED Don Disney's tenure as Howard County's coordinator of athletics at all, it shouldn't surprise you that his last ideas are about ensuring the safety of the kids.

After all, Disney, who will be leaving Howard after 31 years for a similar position in El Paso, Texas, at the end of the month, threatened to drop the hammer last spring on county coaches because he thought they were ignoring an edict about suspending play whenever lightning was merely seen or thunder was merely heard, much less when an actual storm hit.

So it can't come as a big shock that a man who has dedicated 20 years as coordinator to making sure that "safety isn't compromised," would propose major changes to protect student-athletes statewide.

In his last meeting with the control board of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association last week, Disney introduced two initiatives that could change athletics in Maryland.

The first proposal would make it a state law that every Maryland public high school that offers interscholastic athletics would need to have a trainer. The second would require that all incoming state head coaches take a course and be certified in the American Sport Education program.

The plan to place trainers in the schools is one Disney enacted to success in Howard County among the 11 high schools there over the past 10 years, and he thinks it can work in all Maryland jurisdictions.

"We need somebody who is knowledgeable who can watch these kids, watch changes in them, counsel them [in] nutrition, make sure that kids see a physician and follow up with parents," Disney said. "Coaches aren't trained to do this. Having trainers here over the last 10 years has made a difference."

Disney said he is loathe to involve state legislators in this process but believes the only way to make sure that all the counties and Baltimore City participate is to put a law on the books.

"You need to jump-start this with some legislation that will set up some minimal parameters and then you can work with school districts to find ways to do it," Disney said. "The bottom line is that if a district didn't have the money, they might have to look into cutting a program to have trainers.

"The whole thing is you wouldn't pole vault without a properly certified pole and pit. The schools provide a nurse during the school day, but you have thousands of bodies colliding after school and you don't have coverage. Safety just can't be compromised."

Of course, the major hang-up with such a law is funding. It will certainly be easier for wealthier jurisdictions like Montgomery County to fund such a state mandate than it will for areas like Baltimore City, where schools are, indeed, having trouble funding nurses for the regular school day.

Disney points out that surrounding jurisdictions like Washington and West Virginia, neither of which is known for being particularly wealthy, have trainers available in all of their schools.

There are creative ways to get trainers. In Howard, the county has partnered with Kernan Hospital and HealthSouth to provide trainers, options that could be available to other counties. And Disney isn't calling for immediate implementation, but rather a phasing-in over, say, a five-year period.

Disney's second proposal, the certification of coaches, is already in place, as the state requires coaches to take a 15-hour course in the care and prevention of athletic injuries.

That's all well and good, Disney said, but a trainer would take care of those things, freeing a coach to be a "first responder" to deal with the most serious injuries.

What Disney wants is for coaches to be steeped in philosophy, particularly of dealing with parents and managing their expectations as well as organizing and running a successful practice.

This plan, again already in place in Howard, would take effect during a two-year period, and would be required only for first-time coaches.

"It's the little tiny things, as coordinator, that I see every day. I'm always thinking, 'Gee, I wish this person could have gone through a course,' " Disney said.

Disney certainly will leave a legacy of championing the cause of female athletes during his tenure in Howard County. All you have to do is look at the list of state champions, especially in soccer and volleyball, to see that the county has done well by girls during Disney's tenure.

But Disney will be looking from the Southwest to see if his desired target, keeping kids safe, is hit.

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