Football helmetAs another school year approaches, student-athletes and coaches will soon be involved with pre-season practices to prepare for sports contests. Emphasizing student-athlete safety has never been greater, particularly with respect to head injuries. Because of the potential for serious injuries, districts should take this opportunity to review their policies relating to concussion management and awareness now, before the latest sports season formally begins.

New York State set out the minimum standards for concussion protocols in Education Law § 305(42). This statute has been implemented by the Commissioner of Education in his Regulations, 8 N.Y.C.R.R. § 136.5. The regulations do not prohibit schools from adopting and implementing stricter standards. Districts should consider whether doing so advances their specific objectives.

Schools should note first and foremost that the regulations govern students who are even believed to have sustained a concussion. The severity of these injuries leaves no room for discretion here. If an athlete could have sustained a brain injury, remove him or her from play immediately. You should presume he or she has been injured if there is the slightest hesitation or doubt. Allowing an injured athlete to continue to compete can lead to fatal consequences. Although stringent, this approach will help protect districts from liability.

One shortfall in the law is that it applies to pupils who sustain a head injury while receiving instruction or engaging in any school-sponsored activity. But districts are not in control of their students for much of the day, before and after school, and on weekends. Schools should enlist parental assistance in reporting head injuries to ensure that they can prevent further injury and enforce proper return-to-play protocols.

Coaches, physical education teachers, school nurses, and any certified athletic trainer who works with student-athletes must complete a course of instruction relating to recognizing concussion symptoms, monitoring the students, and seeking proper medical attention for them. The course must be completed on a biennial basis. Districts should evaluate whether the frequency of this instruction meets their prevention and protection goals.

Students and parents are used to the usual requirements associated with participation in athletics—everything from having a physical examination to signing permission forms and codes of conduct. New York State requires that certain information about traumatic brain injuries be presented to parents on consent forms, including the accepted definition, signs and symptoms, and guidelines for return to school and play. The permission forms may be a good place to remind parents about their duty to timely report injuries sustained outside of school to the district.

Other considerations for districts in their concussion management policies include whether to have a concussion management team to implement their protocol, the frequency and implementation of baseline testing for student-athletes, and the occurrence of equipment inspections and testing, particularly in sports requiring helmet use. While some of these factors can be applied uniformly to districts, there are often specific issues related to schools that require more detailed attention for consideration in concussion protocols.