Public health advocates are urging the D.C. Council to require every high school student in the District to learn CPR before they graduate.
They hope to amend a bill the council is currently considering on emergency procedures in the city’s school. The measure would require each school to have and maintain an automated external defibrillator, or AED, and to train staff members to use the device. But advocates said the bill could be stronger.
“Every minute, every second counts,” when it comes to cardiac arrest, said Ankoor Shah, a board member for the D.C. chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics during a public hearing this month. “Required CPR and AED training for all students would dramatically increase the number of first responders in the school and community. Thousands and thousands of citizens will be armed with how to save a life.”
Across the country, 27 states already have moved to make CPR a high school graduation requirement, including Maryland and Virginia. Most of the bills have been passed since 2012, said Stuart Berlow, director of government relations for the American Heart Association, which is lobbying for the legislation.
Advocates are working to make the life-saving skill more broadly accessible. According to the American Heart Association, the vast majority of people who suffer cardiac arrest outside of a hospital die, but if CPR is administered immediately, the chances of survival are two or three times higher. Most Americans — 70 percent — feel helpless to act during a cardiac emergency because they don’t know how to administer CPR or because they don’t want to hurt the person.
In Maryland, a CPR requirement goes into effect for incoming freshmen this year and, in Virginia, next fall. Maryland’s law is named for Breanna Sudano, a Baltimore County student whose life was saved by a bystander who performed CPR. In Virginia, the law is named for Gwyneth Griffin, a 12-year-old girl who collapsed at her Stafford County middle school in 2012. Her subsequent death could have been prevented, her parents have said, if she had received CPR sooner.
The D.C. Council has authority to pass laws that affect graduation requirements. But in the District, the State Board of Education is primarily responsible for setting academic standards and requirements for the city’s public school students.
John-Paul Hayworth, executive director of the State Board of Education, said the District already has some of the strictest requirements in the country, and adding something new would require careful consideration of how it would fit in.
“We would object strongly to them adding a graduation requirement without them considering the impact,” he said.
Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), said a personal experience prompted her to introduce the bill. She knew a football player in high school who collapsed and died from a heart condition, and she wants to see more trained first-responders in schools, including coaches, athletic trainers, and physical education teachers.
But she thinks that CPR training should be offered as an elective, not be mandatory for all students.
“I would like to see the graduation rates go up before we add any additional requirements,” she said.
D.C. Public Schools voluntarily started teaching CPR to students this year, both in high school health courses and as part of an emergency preparedness unit for all seventh graders. The lessons are being introduced as part of the school system’s new Cornerstones intiative, an effort to give more meaningful and memorable lessons to students and to teach them important life skills.