Our Opinion: Concussion effort needs schools' help
We think that the safety of kids who play sports is important.
We don't think we're alone.
It's why we think we ought to have the help of all Oregon schools.
When Pamplin Media Group and InvestigateWest set out to look at Oregon high school concussions, we did so with an eye toward solutions. In embarking on a project to localize the national discussion about the prevention, identification and treatment of traumatic brain injuries among young athletes, we asked ourselves: How can we avoid a story that generates more fear than fixes? What tools can we offer to the parents, coaches, and educators looking to improve student health and support the young athletes in their lives?
The answer seemed obvious: data.
Oregon has one of the oldest concussion-prevention laws for high school athletes in the nation. The landmark legislation, passed in 2009, has led Oregon high schools to collect critical data about when and how student athletes sustain concussions and how well their symptoms resolve as they return to sports. The information, collected on what's known as Return to Participation forms, includes factors that likely influence student injury rates and recovery: the sport being played, the gender and age of the injured athlete, the treatment strategy and whether the student had access to an athletic trainer.
When we first considered looking at concussions, we were surprised to learn that no one outside individual schools or districts even collects the data from the Return to Participation forms, let alone uses the data to evaluate what's working — and what's not.
So, we decided to do it ourselves.
Over the past six months, InvestigateWest has filed more than 200 public records requests with individual high schools and begun compiling a statewide database for our project, "Rattled: Oregon's Concussion Discussion."
The goal is to add depth and understanding to existing efforts to protect students. And to do something academic research has, to our knowledge, been unable to do elsewhere in the United States so far: include small and underfunded schools in a comprehensive analysis of concussions.
Many educators and sports enthusiasts are backing our efforts. More than three dozen districts have already provided us the requested public documents, many without charging us a dime.
But the response from too many education officials has been, at best, disinterested and, in some cases, openly hostile. Many have simply ignored us, or required us to make repeated inquiries, even when state law now requires they acknowledge requests for public records within five business days and develop a plan for responding to them within an additional 10 days. Others have wanted to charge us as much as $3,000 for the documents.
We knew that small districts would raise concerns about the staff time needed to collect and redact the forms (we specifically requested that student names and dates of birth be stripped from the documents to protect student privacy).
What we didn't expect was the resistance we got from some of the state's biggest districts.
At Portland Public Schools, it took the intervention of a school board member to release the data we sought, even after five months of careful planning and conversations with officials.
In Eugene, we spent five months in a ceaseless game of buck-passing with school officials, none of whom took ownership of working with us until we contacted the superintendent.
In Salem, we've so far failed to access data that the district's trainers have been freely giving to a Colorado researcher for years.
We understand school officials are already feeling overburdened by the demands of paperwork. We get it. And we know that this work inevitably lands on people who are already wearing a lot of hats.
We're grateful to those schools that enthusiastically dove in to this project to participate with us.
But we're eager to hear from the rest and remind them, and the school boards that oversee them, that what we're asking for is not a favor.
Responding to requests for public records is a job requirement backed up by state law and public opinion. A poll conducted in January by DHM Research found that more than three-fourths of Oregonians agree that making public data more available is good for our state.
If educators truly care about the safety of the kids they teach, they should provide the requested records promptly so that this collaborative, solutions-focused project can better benefit student athletes, coaches, teachers and parents all over the state.
Who's playing ball?
Next month "Rattled: Oregon's Concussion Discussion" will publish a list of all the school districts that have received public records requests for the project and indicate how they responded.