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PADECKY: School board forks out for safety

Bill Carle, president of the Santa Rosa City Schools board of education, fielded questions about spring sports during a town hall meeting put on by Schools Plus at Santa Rosa High on April 13, 2010.   Credit: Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat

Bill Carle, president of the Santa Rosa City Schools board of education, fielded questions about spring sports during a town hall meeting put on by Schools Plus at Santa Rosa High on April 13, 2010.
Credit: Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat

By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A week ago Wednesday, the idle conversation and the wringing of hands stopped. The Santa Rosa City Schools board approved the hiring of athletic trainers for each of their five high schools and neurocognitive testing for every student-athlete who will play a collision sport beginning this fall. Brain trauma now would be getting the attention it deserves in high school athletics. It was a watershed moment in Empire youth sports.

“I teach a class (in athletic training),” said Monica Ohkubo, head athletic trainer at SRJC. “I told my kids they should come to this school board meeting. Afterwards one of them came up to me and said, ‘I now will be able to tell my children that I was there the day when they made the decision.’ Myself, it was hard not to tear up. Santa Rosa has made a statement. They now are ahead of the curve. This is a huge milestone.”

The milestone had a lot of moving parts to it. The most significant of which was cost. No one contested the value of concussion testing. No one had to be convinced of the worthiness of an athletic trainer on the sidelines. The school board vote to approve, after all, was 7-0. But how would this be funded? In a struggling economy, with the fat already trimmed from school budgets, would it take a financial Houdini performing a sleight-of-hand to make it happen? Would essential school services be eliminated?

Oh, and there was one other thing.

“I told everyone,” said Bill Carle, SRCS board president, “the budget was already in place. I wanted this to happen but we would have to find the money.”

Carle was loathe to do anymore trimming of the budget. The budget wasn’t skin and bones but you could see the skeleton without much effort. People understood and sympathized with Carle’s plight, yet his statement made people squirm. Money was always the first stop sign anyone threw up when the subject was introduced.

Into this dilemma enter the most unlikely of saviors, electricity and food.

For three years now the SRCS board has asked its teachers and students to turn off lights when leaving a classroom; air-conditioning, too, on hot days. Turn off computers. Remove personal refrigerators. Don’t run an appliance more than necessary.

“These are things you would be doing at home anyway,” said Carle, a Santa Rosa litigator.

Three years ago SRCS also began an effort to increase student participation in campus meals, including offering healthier choices. That effort took on added significance a little more than a year ago. As much as $250,000 would have had to be trimmed from the school budget. Athletics was a prime target. That money, however, was realized from increased revenue from on-campus lunch consumption as well as the reduction in electricity usage. Carle expects those savings and revenues to continue.

“I am not heavily concerned at all that we would have to take something from the budget to make this happen,” Carle said. “The increase in energy savings as well as the added revenue from school lunches should do it. Personal refrigerators draw a lot of electricity. The cost of this program will be about $80,000. Our annual school budget will be between $115 million and $120 million. So we’re talking about less than a tenth of one percent.”

The funding of the program, in reality, required less sweat equity than determining the program’s implementation did. Various ideas were tossed about, including the hiring of certified athletic trainers. Problem was, it wouldn’t be a full-time job, only 20 hours a week per school. That part-time job would not attract an adult with a family and a mortgage.

So where to draw the qualified personnel? From the Sonoma State’s master’s program in athletic training. Five graduate students — each possessing a bachelor’s degree in athletic training and having passed the certificiation exam — would be assigned to the five high schools.

Each grad assistant would be paid $15,000 to work 36 weeks.
“Graduate students could use that money to help pay the bills while still in college,” said Steven Winter, professor of kinesiology at SSU. “And it would also give them valuable on-the-job training.”

It also would give SSU a valuable recruiting tool for its master’s program, as classes would be more than theory.

As for the examination software, SRJC and SSU both have been using the ImPACT program.

“It made sense to use the software already in place in our area, already performing at the collegiate level,” said Arlen Agapinan, SRCS’s director of curriculum and instruction, grades 7-12.

Winter said the total program’s cost may be bumped to $90,000: $75,000 on grad salaries, $10,000 on supplies such as tape and bandages and $3,750-$5,000 on testing. It will affect approximately 11,000 high school students. A student in any sport that offers even a remote chance of collision will be tested.“Only an estimated 42 percent of all U.S. public and private high schools have certified athletic trainers on sidelines during games,” Ohkubo said. “As Byron (Craighead, former SRJC head athletic trainer who worked with U.S. Olympic athletes at the 2010 Winter Games) says, having a trainer on the sidelines is not a luxury. It is a necessity.”

Could the day come when this program reaches elementary and middle schools, Pop Warner football, CYO basketball, club soccer? Everyone who answered the question changed “could” to “should.”

“First, let’s get the kinks out with this program,” said Arlen Agapinan, SRCS’s director of curriculum and instruction, grades 7-12. “Give us a couple years.”

Could this program become the model for all school districts in the area, providing the working example for all?

“Of course,” Ohkubo said.The benefits go beyond the obvious testing for brain trauma. The hope expressed by school board members is that stubbornness and pride and insecurity in athletes evaporate. The emphasis on recognizing and treating brain trauma, Agapinan says, will be intentionally and overwhelmingly pervasive.

“We are going to be annoying,” Agapinan said. “We will be sending home with each kid information on the subject. We will have brochures. Education is foremost with us. I would strongly suggest everyone go to YouTube and click on ‘Tracy’s Story.’”

It’s a two-minute video compiled by the Center for Disease Control. Tracy is a former high school athlete who ignored a concussion and now is prohibited from sports for the rest of her life. It’s compelling stuff because it’s not an adult from the SRCS board talking.

“We want kids to be able to talk freely about being injured,” Agapinan said. “It’s OK to talk about it. You’re not a wimp. This is the mind-set we want to develop. It’s OK to admit you’re hurting.”

When former NFL star Junior Seau took his life, when other ex-NFL players like Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling committed suicide, Agapinan felt those events created a tipping point. The incidents forced the ramping up of the discussion on what could be done about brain trauma. The phrase that Carle and Agapinan used independent of each other — “We have a responsibility to the health and safety of our children” — no longer feels like empty words used by a bureaucrat.

“We look to the pros and we always have seen it is as entertainment,” Agapinan said. “But we know now it’s much more than that. There’s a movement afoot.”

This movement began in November 2011. Sixteen months later a decision was reached. The dialogue was difficult at times. Optimism wasn’t always high. But, in the end, the adults did something for the kids.

So how long will be the wait, for those school administrators, coaches and parents outside of the Santa Rosa school district, outside of Sonoma County, outside of Northern California? What will it take to sit down and hammer out a solution to protect out kids? What has to happen?

No one wants that answer to be a football player, someone’s kid, layinglying motionless on the ground.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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