Congress considers guidelines for how high schools should handle concussions

By James Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; 12:30 AM

Hoping to set a standard for states across the country, a House committee considered legislation that would issue minimum guidelines for how school districts should handle student-athletes recovering from concussions.

In a Thursday hearing of the House Education and Labor committee, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) outlined the legislation introduced this week and heard from, among others, medical experts, a former NFL player and a high school senior recovering from a concussion - all who applauded the bill as a needed step.

"Concussions have always been a part of the conversation about student-athletes," said Miller, chairman of the committee and co-sponsor of the bill. "But for far too long, we've talked about what has happened without taking any action to help students manage these dangerous injuries."

Gerard Gioia, chief of pediatric neuropsychology at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, testified that a recent survey of 140 school nurses across the D.C. area found that nearly half weren't prepared to properly assess a concussion and even fewer were able to offer academic support after the injury.

"We can clearly see that schools are very much caring and want to help students with these injuries," Gioia said. "But they are often not adequately prepared to help them. They lack the necessary policies, procedures, knowledge, skill and tools to properly support the return of the concussed student athlete."

Nine states, including Virginia, have passed laws that have addressed concussions, which have become a significant concern in recent years because of the long-term problems associated with the injury. The D.C. Council is considering legislation, also introduced this week, that would prohibit athletes from both recreational and school sports teams from returning to the field until they were evaluated and received written clearance from a health-care provider.

The minimum guidelines proposed Thursday include displaying an informational poster on concussions for students, keeping student-athletes who are suspected of suffering from concussions out of games and practices, notifying their parents and sending them to an evaluation by a health-care professional. It also includes drafting a plan, shared with the school, that helps students suffering from concussions ease back into the classroom and offering specialized help if they are not recovering.

Alison Conca-Cheng, a 17-year old senior at Centennial High who suffered a concussion in August when she collided headfirst with a soccer teammate, detailed how her school sent her to a family doctor and then gave her a computerized test that tested simple cognitive functions.

After her results were lower than her pre-concussion results and she continued struggling with class work, she was seen by Gioia. He made a plan of how to deal with the concussions that was shared with Conca-Cheng's teachers and counselors.

"The school and my teachers have been extremely understanding and accommodating," she said. "Whenever I need to 'cool off' my brain, I can go to the nurse's office and I have gotten extensions on reading assignments. These adjustments have helped. But with the added time it takes to do my homework and the mandated breaks, schoolwork now dominates my evenings and weekends."

Stanley Herring, head of the NFL's Neck and Spine Committee and team physician for the Seattle Seahawks, said the NFL and others are working to change the "warrior mentality" that predominates in football, where concussions are more likely to occur than other sports. Laws meant to raise awareness, such as the one considered Thursday, help, he said.

"When you make this the national standard. . . . it makes it easier for us to push this agenda forward," Herring said.

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