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On schools

Addressing the frustration

Smith speaks on concussion issue

By Bob Holmes
Globe Staff / August 24, 2011

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FRANKLIN - It wasn’t a dream vacation day, unless you prefer PowerPoint to a book and the beach. But for Dr. Lauren Smith, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s medical director, there was no question that giving up a few summer hours to talk concussions was worth it.

“Because it’s so important,’’ said Smith, who is in charge of implementing the concussion law passed by the state legislature 13 months ago.

The Maryland-born, Harvard-educated mother of three spoke yesterday before the first meeting of the school year of the MIAA Board of Directors. If Year 1 of the law was the concussion discussion, Year 2, which started with the first football practice Monday, is more concussion compliance, with the law now in effect.

Her audience was 14 school officials, most of whom were frustrated when the law was passed, not because they didn’t take the topic seriously but because the regulations were either complex or nonexistent. With the regulations finalized in June, and with MIAA executive director Dick Neal showing support - “Smith has been accessible, responsive, and accountable,’’ he said - she tried to address that frustration yesterday.

“We know schools are being asked to do more with less,’’ said Smith. “We don’t want to add to their burden. But at the same time we had a responsibility to make sure that the law was implemented to protect kids’ health and safety. I’m confident that people really do share that goal.’’

Smith must deal with a law that’s not going away, and with athletic directors who already feel overwhelmed by their workload.

“We heard loud and clear from folks during the comment period that that’s what they were looking for [relief from added work],’’ she said. “We really did go over and over that, thinking, how can we do it in such a way that doesn’t make them have to do a lot of extra work?’’

Despite an emphasis on flexibility with the regulations, with revised definitions of everything from “certified athletic trainer’’ to “head injuries,’’ the frustration was still there.

Asked if it had subsided, Concord-Carlisle athletic director Barry Haley said, “No, not at all. There are so many layers to this thing.’’

Smith acknowledged that in many cases the Department of Public Health can only implement the law, not change it, even if the changes seem reasonable.

But Haley asked, “If she can’t change the law, then who can?’’

“I think we’re a little bit more comfortable than a year ago,’’ said new board chairman and Case principal Brian McCann. “We had an opportunity to voice our opinions in the springtime.’’

Many schools are folding the DPH requirements into forms they already give to student-athletes and their parents. The first form every student and parent must sign is the pre-participation form. With the complexity of the law and its many regulations, the DPH plans to have “Frequently Asked Questions’’ on its website, www.mass.gov/dph/injury.

For now, many of those questions still are coming from athletic directors.

On the last day possible for the fall season, the MIAA granted membership to Boston Green Academy. The academy is a new Horace Mann Charter School in South Boston, and by getting in under the deadline, students there can compete in football, soccer, and cross-country as a part of cooperative teams . . . The Merrimack Valley Conference will sponsor an informational session tonight on the new Massachusetts regulations for treatment of head injuries and concussions. The event will be held at Long Meadow Golf Club on Havilah Street in Lowell beginning at 7 p.m. The event is open to all ADs, principals, coaches, school nurses, and parents. Corrine Pavlos of the Mass. Department of Health will answer questions and share ideas.

Bob Holmes can be reached at rholmes@globe.com.