A new law on the handling of concussions means that any middle or high school athlete who sustains or is suspected of sustaining a head injury can't return to the team until cleared by a qualified person trained to deal with concussions.
"With what's at stake, I think it's a pretty good policy," said Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak/Mat-Su.
Both houses of the Alaska Legislature passed the bill unanimously in April. Sponsored by Anchorage Rep. Mike Doogan, the legislation was signed into law May 27 by Gov. Sean Parnell.
But that was just the beginning.
While the bill mandated how athletes should be cared for post-concussion, it left it up to individual school districts to consult with the Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) to come up with their own guidelines on exactly how the law should be put into practice.
"It's up to the school districts to decide how to follow state law," said ASAA associate director Russ Schreckenghost.
Following the law's passage, the Anchorage School District adopted some of the state's strictest concussion guidelines. In addition to requiring that all coaches undergo concussion training and distributing educational forms to every athlete in the district and his or her parents, the ASD is also requiring each athlete to complete computerized baseline testing before being allowed to participate in sports.
That requirement which coaches said they only heard about in mid July led to long lines outside school activities offices as students rushed to complete their 20-minute baseline exams before practices started up Aug. 1.
"The lines get a little backed up," said Chugiak High activities clerk Joyce Huffer.
But policy is policy, and Huffer said those tasked with administering the tests found that the process went as smooth as can be expected.
"We keep smiling," she said.
The baseline testing is being required for all ASD athletes. Students must take the test once in middle school and once in high school before their first practice.
Now, if a student is suspected of having a concussion, he or she must be pulled from participation in sports until cleared by a doctor or health care provider. The baseline testing will be used to help monitor their recovery.
ASD Superintendent Carol Comeau said the short lead time was a small price to pay for the overall health and safety of the district's athletes. The long-term risks associated with concussions are just now being understood, she said, but it's clear that head injuries must be taken seriously.
"I think people are just more aware of these injuries these days," she said.
Chugiak football coach Duncan Shackelford said his staff has always taken a cautious approach to concussions. His policy has always been that if an athlete has signs of a head injury, that player sits.
"I don't think much is going to change for us," he said.
The district's policy says a student must have a medical release signed by a doctor before returning to play, and it also allows for injured students to have special arrangements made and alterations done to help with their classwork.
Shackelford said he's all for preventing concussions he spent part practice Monday preaching the importance of proper mouthpiece but said he would have liked to have more lead time and thinks the new policy could have unforeseen consequences down the road.
"I think issues could arise that the district isn't ready to handle," he said.
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, August 10, 2011.