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Colorado Schools Don't Have To Track Sports Concussions, But We Found 6,039 Cases

High school football
Michael de Yoanna
/
KUNC
Cherry Creek and Grandview high school football teams faced off in November at the Stutler Bowl in Aurora.

Kelli Jantz lost her son, Jake Snakenberg, during a high school football game. She will never forget his last moments on the field.

"He lined up," Jantz said. "He set. And then he fell forward and was trying to get up and you could tell something wasn't quite right. He turned to come to the sideline and he went down and that was it."

He never got up again.

The 14-year-old Grandview High School student from Aurora died in 2004 from brain swelling caused by apparent repeated concussions in the sport he loved playing. In the years after his death, doctors, experts, coaches and others studied ways to reduce the risks of such deaths and to better protect young athletes from the potentially debilitating consequences of concussions.

jake_snakenberg.jpg
Courtesy Kelli Jantz

Their solution came in 2011. State lawmakers passed a bill in Jake Snakenberg's name and then-Gov. John Hickenlooper signed it into law. It requires that kids as young as 11 be pulled out of play if they take a hard hit to the head. It also mandates annual concussion training courses for coaches.

Yet it is almost impossible to see how that training is working around the state. The law doesn't require any person or agency to track how often kids are removed from games or practices. It doesn't require tallies on which sports have the most concussions. Or documentation of how often kids get more than one concussion. Or collection of data in any fashion that would create reports for parents to compare coaches, teams or schools.

That would be a lot to ask, said a co-sponsor of the law, former state Sen. Nancy Spence.

"I don't think that there's a way you could trace that — every coach of every sport of every kid from 11 to 18," Spence said. "It's difficult."

But KUNC, in a collaboration with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, found a way to start by applying the findings of a national investigation earlier this year locally.

KUNC filed Colorado Open Records Act requests with major school districts in the state. We found students were pulled out of play for head injuries more than 6,000 times in the last five years.

"Six thousand concussions?" Spence said, asking for more details about our data.

Tip Of An Iceberg?

The true number of kids pulled out of play with suspected concussions is likely much higher. That's because the 6,000 incidents come from just six of the state's 178 school districts.

None of that data was readily accessible to the public.

We obtained it through 10 requests with five of the largest districts in the state and five prominent in Northern Colorado. The six that provided data include:

  • Aurora Public Schools
  • Boulder Valley School District
  • Cherry Creek School District
  • Douglas County School District
  • Greeley-Evans School District 6
  • JeffCo Public Schools

Then we turned to a nationally-respected youth sports researcher: Dawn Comstock of the Colorado School of Public Health.
"That's what you'd expect. Football should be the big hairy beast that drives most of this," Comstock said as she looked at the data from one of the districts, Cherry Creek Schools.

By big hairy beast, she means that football had the most head injuries where kids were pulled out of games or practices. Girls soccer and cheerleading were also high compared to other sports.

"That's pretty similar to what we'd expect," Comstock said.

Data from other school districts also mirrored expected trends, which Comstock tracks in a national database for youth sports called High School RIO. That data relies on schools across the country and is used to discern trends, not report local numbers like the ones we got in our investigation.

Concussion data can provide information that coaches or players might never think of, like at what age heading the ball is safer in soccer, or where on the court or field injuries are most likely to occur.

One of Comstock's findings was that concussion rates in football dropped by 20% nationally after teams limited full-contact practices to three times a week, even though not all schools took the advice.

"So if all the schools would follow the recommendation, the effectiveness of this intervention would be even bigger," she said.

MAP: Colorado Open Records Act requests KUNC filed by school district. Green markers indicate school districts that provided data, amber markers indicate school districts that did not provide data.

No Local Numbers, No Accountability

In contrast, the data on the 6,000 incidents we received from six Colorado school districts doesn't allow for such detailed analyses. The numbers were provided in whatever ways districts decided and in varying formats. Some provided breakdowns that included specific schools and sports. Others provided aggregate numbers for kids pulled out of play across the district schools by year.

That's if the districts provided us with data at all. The state's largest district — Denver Public Schools — was among those that did not provide suspected concussion numbers.

In a written statement, DPS said that though athletic trainers keep information at the school level, "we do not report on any injuries publicly." Loveland's Thompson R2-J School District said it does not keep information "at a comprehensive district level." In Fort Collins, Poudre School District stated that it does not "compile or maintain" such data. In Longmont, the St. Vrain Valley School District said it had "no records responsive" to our request.

"Even a single concussion can be life threatening."

Under Colorado law, kids must see medical professionals if they are taken out of play for a suspected concussion and need medical approval before they can return.

All 10 school districts we asked emphasized policies to protect students from concussions, including protocols for return to play with vigilance for possible symptoms.

For example, Poudre officials said, "If a student is concussed, either during participation in a PSD-sponsored sport or if they report being concussed during participation in an outside club/recreational sport, PSD works closely with the student, their family and others to determine what arrangements or accommodations are made for that student, based on doctor's recommendations, as they return to the classroom and athletics."

Officials with the Greeley-Evans School District 6 noted how seriously the district views youth sports head injuries: "Even a single concussion can be life threatening."

That is why it is impossible to compare how efforts to protect young athletes are working across Colorado's school districts.

"Right now, because we don't have good enough data to really do school-to-school direct comparisons, I think that means that we need to avoid pointing blame at any individual school," Comstock said.

Case In Point

Cherry Creek Schools Athletics and Activities Director Larry Bull said he's certain high school athletes are safer than they were a generation ago, citing the district's return-to-play protocols and, overall, its watchfulness of students who are hurt.

"The Snakenberg law has made a difference," Bull said, "100% made a difference."

Jake Snakenberg was a student in the district. One big change for athletes today, Bull said, is how people are now vigilant for concussions. Anyone, he added, can step up to tell a school official if they think a player has sustained a head injury.

JakeSnakenbergCollage.jpg
Courtesy Kelli Jantz

Across the district's high schools, 721 student athletes were pulled out of play for suspected concussions in three years. Asked if the number sounds like a lot, Bull conceded that "it does."

"That's probably right," Bull said of the numbers the district provided. "Maybe I'm just shocked."

One-third of those suspected concussions were for the district's football teams. Almost 9% were for girls soccer teams. More than 7% were for cheerleading. Overall, head injuries across all sports in the district climbed steadily, up by almost 12% in three years.

The numbers are available to anyone who asks, said Cherry Creek Schools Director of Communications Abbe Smith, citing the district's commitment to transparency.

"We're not opposed to publicly publishing that somehow if that's some sort of state requirement or something that groups come to suggest would be a recommendation that would make kids safer," Smith said.

The district has no plans to put suspected concussion data out in an annual report.

No Teeth

Meanwhile, tracking is taking place in some states, with the aim of reducing risks for young athletes. The Michigan High School Athletic Association requires schools to track data that goes into a publicly-available report annually. A sports governing body in Texas is working with a brain study institute to follow student concussions. In Hawaii, student concussion numbers have long been tracked, though public reporting is limited.

"There's no enforcement provision. There's no penalty provision. There's not even a reporting provision."

In 2011, then-state Sen. Shawn Mitchell warned before the Jake Snakenberg Youth Sports Concussion Act became law that it had no accountability mechanisms.

"This bill has no teeth," the Republican said in a committee hearing. "There's no enforcement provision. There's no penalty provision. There's not even a reporting provision."

Bert Borgman, who lobbies for the Colorado High School Activities Association, or CHSAA, which sets rules for high school sports, recalled how the bill made its way through the legislature. The goal was to stop hurt kids from playing, not count how many kids got hurt.

"We were looking for the educational resources that we could provide to help get them into the appropriate treatments as necessary, you know, those kinds of things," Borgman said.

He noted it had bipartisan support and was backed by brain experts, coaches, players, and even representatives from the NFL and Denver Broncos.

CHSAA Assistant Commissioner Jenn Roberts-Uhlig sees the value in tracking head injury data across the state's school districts. But would CHSAA require, or support a state law requiring, concussion tracking in youth sports across the state?

"I think before we could go down that road we definitely have to make sure we have it very lined out what we're looking for," Roberts-Uhlig said.

She said the idea is being discussed by a committee that studies sports-medicine issues.

Kelli Jantz
Michael de Yoanna
/
KUNC

Jake Snakenberg's Legacy

Jake Snakenberg had complained the week before his death of tingling in his hands. It turned out to be a warning sign for "second impact syndrome." That's where a hit or hits to the head don't fully heal. So when a subsequent impact comes, it can cause dangerous brain swelling or death.

Kelli Jantz, a nurse, and her husband, a doctor, knew football could be dangerous. They didn't know 15 years ago how dangerous it could be.

"We didn't know how grave the consequences could be," Jantz said. "We didn't have that information."

"We didn't know how grave the consequences could be. We didn't have that information."

In 2016, she told Jake's story to a congressional committee gathering research on youth sports concussions in Washington, D.C.

Jantz told representatives about the joy Jake brought so many people in his short life. Then she delivered a written statement that said parents, schools, coaches and students need comprehensive data to better protect kids like Jake. Numbers, she says, might help erase some of the disbelief she still runs into.

"I still feel like there's a lot of, 'Ahhh, it doesn't happen that often,'" Jantz said. "And, 'Well, what happened to Jake, that's so rare.' There's still a culture out there to kind of butt up against."

Jantz was as surprised as anyone by the all the suspected head injuries we uncovered. In that, she sees something good: 6,000 kids who were pulled out of play.

"It feels so good to know that maybe in those 6,000, maybe there's some kids who avoided long-term problems or suffering, you know, ending up like Jake," Jantz said. "That means the world."

Ask your school district (Colorado and other states) by using Reveal and KUNC's request forms. Text the word "head" to 47-47-47 to get one. It includes a request for data and other policy information pertaining to concussions.

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