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San Diego Unified has finalized new protocols for how to handle head injuries.

Coaches and school staff will take additional safety measures at all schools, whether students are injured on the playground, in the gym or on the football field.

The move comes after Voice of San Diego revealed a JV football player at La Jolla High had suffered a serious brain injury on the field. The player was kept in the game after telling a coach he was hurt.

Howard Taras, a pediatrician and professor at UCSD who helped write the new guidelines, says the previous protocols – which are based in state law – dealt mainly with incidents that happen in sports, and didn’t address how to monitor students once they return to school.

“Even though the law encourages early concussion detection in athletics, that’s really not spilling over into what happens in the classroom,” Taras said. “Head injuries should really all be managed in the same way. A concussion is a concussion.”

Here a few changes coming this fall:

Coaches or school staff will document circumstances around injuries and pass those notes along to doctors if students are referred to outside medical providers.

Relying on students or families to communicate details to doctors is unrealistic, Taras said. Students, hoping for a quick return to the field, may minimize injuries – or they won’t remember them.

A new referral form asks doctors to recommend accommodations schools should provide once students return to class. These could include allowing half-days, dismissing students early to avoid crowds, or allowing sunglasses if students are sensitive to light (a common post-concussion symptom).

Post-concussion, students need to make a step-by-step progression before they return to vigorous physical activity. The process must last at least one week. California law already mandated this graduated protocol when kids return to sports. This extends it to all students (including those returning to gym class).

Taras said the changes were motivated, in part, by VOSD’s investigation.

“A couple of things came together at the same time, and media helped me recognize how disjointed the system was and really motivated me to take the reins on this,” Taras said.

In the La Jolla incident, head football coach Jason Carter initially told us no such injury occurred. An assistant coach – who the injured boy’s father blamed for the incident – was subsequently dismissed. Neither La Jolla High nor San Diego Unified ever explained the circumstances of the injury, citing student privacy laws.

Still, the injury sparked a robust conversation about the future of high school football and highlighted some of the barriers to keeping kids safe: limited concussion data, lack of access to athletic trainers, athletes who minimize or don’t report injuries and coaches who ignore safety guidelines.

The revised protocols seem like common-sense changes that could improve communication between schools and medical staff. But remember that virtually every protection applies to what happens after an injured has already occurred.

At its most basic level, football is a violent sport where athletes repeatedly smash their heads together. To dramatically curb concussions, the rules of the sport would need to change entirely.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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