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Student-athletes' head injuries prompt policy initiative in Falls

Alarmed by an increasing number of head injuries among student-athletes, the city School Board plans to adopt a strong, proactive policy next week to deal with concussions.

Deputy School Superintendent Mark R. Laurrie told the board Thursday that 28 student-athletes in the Niagara Falls district have suffered concussions so far this school year, and 20 other students have suffered concussions in falls or other incidents off the playing field.

Athletic trainers added that such brain injuries often cause learning disabilities, cognitive failures, memory loss, errors in judgment, poor academic performance, physical disabilities and other problems long after the initial injury appears to have healed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in October that teenagers' visits to hospital emergency rooms for head injuries increased by about 60 percent during the last decade.

A new law, set to take effect July 1, will require every school district in the state to take better precautions in handling suspected concussions among their students.

"We don't want to wait for the state deadline," Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco told board members. "I am asking you to act on this at your next meeting, on April 26, for the safety of our students."

Her staff recommended that "baseline tests" of students' brain activity be conducted before they engage in contact sports, and that similar tests be conducted again if a student suffers a head injury. Students would not be permitted to rejoin their teams on the field or in the gymnasium until their brain function returns to the level of the original baseline test.

"This is a system that will determine when they will be able to return to play," she said.

Dr. Michael S. Beecher, the district's medical inspector, will review every case and will "have the final say on whether a student is ready to return to sports practice or competition," the superintendent said. "We will not overrule Dr. Beecher's decisions, not even if a parent pleads with us to let their child get back into the game."

In some other schools, students have been permitted to rejoin their teams based simply on a note from their parents or family physicians stating that they are fit to play again after an injury. There has been no requirement that their brain function measure up to the same baseline as before the injury.

The new policy will require complete rest for at least 24 hours after an injury, then light exercise such as walking or stationary cycling, progressing to skating or running, then noncontact training, exertion testing after medical clearance, and finally, after five more days without any return of symptoms, return to full game play.

The motto will be: "When in doubt, sit them out!"

In other business, Business Administrator Timothy J. Hyland said the district received additional state financial aid of only $675,000 of the $1.2 million that it originally budgeted. The shortfall was partly offset, however, by a saving of about $400,000 in health insurance premiums for school employees.

Hyland explained that the district had budgeted for an 8 percent increase in health care premiums but that the increase turned out to be 4.9 percent.

Bianco and Hyland said those adjustments in the budget would not affect the $122.4 million spending plan that will be submitted to voters in a May 15 referendum and would not change the projected tax rate of $18.896 for each $1,000 of assessed value.