Getting low grades for safety

High schools: Many area schools don't provide for trainers to be at athletic events, and some coaches are saying the situation is a disaster waiting to happen.

High Schools

January 30, 2001|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

When C. Milton Wright basketball player Stacie Johnson hit her head on the floor and was knocked unconscious earlier this season during a game against visiting Meade, her coach, John Harvey, got upset. Really upset.

Not because of a bad call or because he had lost an important player in a close game. But because in a gym full of people at a school-sponsored event, no one with any medical knowledge, certainly not an athletic trainer, could be found. It's an ongoing difficulty in Maryland high schools these days, where budgets are stretched razor thin, but the desire to participate in athletics is still strong.

"Everybody worries about funding for everything else, but I think it's time we take a serious look at getting a trainer in every school," Harvey said. "When you're talking about the safety of kids, you can't put a price on it."

But all school districts are forced to do just that -- put a price on funding for trainers. And when the time comes to trim the budget, funding for an athletic trainer is usually one of the first casualties.

Baltimore City schools, which sometimes struggle to find money to buy enough footballs, have never had trainers, supervisor of athletics Bob Wade said. Schools in Harford, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties have been able to come up with limited funding for part-time trainers -- some solely through fund-raising -- but the coverage falls far short of acceptable levels, according to county athletic directors.

In the metro area, only Howard County, which spends $10,000 a high school on a trainer, and Carroll County, which spends $6,542, are able to put significant emphasis on coverage. But even that is only enough to have a trainer present at home varsity games and not practices, where studies show 60 percent of injuries occur.

When Johnson was injured, Harvey, a health teacher who like all coaches in Maryland has taken required courses in the care and prevention of athletic injuries, realized she might be in trouble, and called 911. A helicopter wasn't available, and because the crowd was large and the parking lot was full, an ambulance had trouble getting into the lot.

"Stacie ended up having a concussion, but what if it had been something more serious?" Harvey said. "We don't wait for a bunch of accidents to happen at an intersection to put up a traffic light, but we won't put trainers in schools, even though the liability is there if some kid ends up with a serious injury. It's frustrating."

Everyone seems to agree on one thing: Asking schools to run sports programs without qualified trainers is the equivalent of asking them to juggle fire without getting burned. Peter Kotz, the president of the Maryland Athletic Trainers Association, said he fears it's going to take a tragedy before something changes.

"Right now, we're in a wait-to-fail situation," Kotz said. "We're gambling that something won't go wrong, and if it does, then we figure we'll fix it. "

Such a situation happened in Northwest Washington in 1998, when Daniel Bell, a 13-year-old freshman football player at St. John's College High School, collapsed on a hot day at practice, and died days later. There wasn't a trainer present at the time of the incident.

"The school and the parents of the players were pretty torn up about it," said Kotz, who works as a trainer at Good Counsel High School in Washington's Catholic Athletic Conference. "After it happened, the league passed a rule that every school had to have a certified athletic trainer in the school.

"The D.C. public schools are one of the more struggling school systems anywhere. If they can find a way to do it, anyone can do it. But it has to be up to the parents to really push for it with school boards; otherwise it's always going to be left behind."

There are no state guidelines requiring schools to have certified athletic trainers, according to Ned Sparks, executive secretary of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. To require it, Sparks said, would be mean the end for a number of athletic programs.

"It would be great and an ideal thing to have a trainer everywhere, but it's not always an easy thing to do," Sparks said. "That stuff is paid for by the school system and every school system has its own priorities, from building better buildings to funding special education. It's tough to find money for everything you want."

As a result, different schools handle it in different ways, with mixed results.

"Funding for a trainer is something I've been requesting for as long as I've been here," said Wade, the city supervisor. "There just isn't money for it. It's tough to say that we're going to give kids the proper equipment to compete against other jurisdictions, like shoulder pads and jerseys, but we can't provide the same type of medical treatment to safeguard them."

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