News org building first statewide database of student athlete concussions

Photo illustration by E.J. HarrisOregon in 2010 became the first state in the nation to enact a law that requires schools to implement concussion protocols to protect student athletes.

Since March 2015, Dr. Derek Earl of Hermiston has had 279 area student athletes visit his medical clinic because of a concussion. More than 100 of those patients — all local middle school and high school students —have arrived in the last year.

Earl said he and the staff at his practice, the Family Health Associates Concussion Clinic, provide access to the most up-to-date concussion care available for student athletes in Morrow County and western Umatilla County. They will see anyone with a suspected or confirmed concussion within one clinic day, preferably on the same day of the injury, and will provide care regardless of the ability to pay.

Oregon law since 2010 required schools to implement protocols for students who suffer a concussion, including a medical release required to clear a student to play athletics. Earl’s practice handles a lot of that testing. A release contains the student’s name, age and grade, plus details of the injury and concussion symptoms.

But Oregon’s law does not require anyone to collect or analyze the reams of medical data sitting in public schools. No one knows how many students and athletes suffer concussions. No one knows what the data could reveal about protecting kids.

Portland-based journalist Lee van der Voo is working to change that.

She is managing director and staff writer for the small nonprofit InvestigateWest. Van der Voo heads up a small team that takes on big topics, such as the examination two years ago of how race and the criminal justice system intersect.

She said last year her organization received a copy of one of the concussion medical release forms and saw how much information it contained. See thought there might be a story there. Those forms are public records, and Van der Voo is a long-time public records advocate. “What could all those medical release forms show?” she asked.

Six months ago she started asking 235 Oregon schools for the records, with redactions of personal information to comply with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

“I always make sure my request goes to at least two people, and usually I shoot for three,” she said.

The requests include 20 schools in Gilliam, Morrow, Umatilla, Union and Wallowa counties.

The high schools of Hermiston, Pendleton, Boardman, Irrigon, Helix and Ukiah provided the records. Pendleton High provided a well-organized wealth of data, van der Voo said, and Irrigon handed over the records the same day it was requested, while Riverside High in Boardman took just two days. Irrigon and Riverside are in the Morrow County School District and did not charge for the records.

Records are in progress from Heppner Junior-Senior High School, as they are from Nixyaawii Community School. But the requests “stalled,” she said, at Stanfield Secondary School and La Grande High School. And 11 schools did not even respond to the requests, including the schools in Umatilla, Pilot Rock and Wallowa.

“I have very limited time to chase 235 schools,” van der Voo said, but Umatilla, one of the larger schools in the area, is on her list of organization to pester.

Under Oregon’s public records law, however, the onus is on the record provider to comply with a request, not on the requester to keep prodding for records.

Darrick Cope is the superintendent and principal of Helix schools. He recalled casting a skeptical eye on the request because he was not familiar with the group and was concerned with providing possibly confidential information. When he determined the request was legitimate, he said he asked the athletic director to provide the records.

Helix’s Griswold High School is small, and Cope estimated 10 students in the past four years had concussions. In each case, the school used Dr. Earl’s practice to evaluate and treat students.

“That gives us a person who we can turn to that is supposed to be an expert in the field,” he said.

Helix also requires parents of athletes from sixth through 12th grades to sign off on being a part of Earl’s program before they can play sports. A few parents have balked at that, he said, and some want their own doctor to see the student. They can do that, Cope said, but Earl has to give the OK on when or if students can return to play.

“We’re trying to keep your kids safe,” Cope said.

Umatilla schools Superintendent Heidi Sipe said the request to Umatilla High School may have gone to the wrong person and fell through some cracks.

“We would never leave somebody in the dark on purpose,” Sipe said.

Umatilla schools also work with Earl and “have a pretty extensive concussion protocol,” she said, and getting the records would not be difficult.

Peter Weber is the executive director of the Oregon School Activities Association. He said Oregon schools have not asked the association to collect concussion records. But the association does track some student athlete injuries at the national level with The National Federation of State High School Associations, the organization that writes the rule book for high school sports and activities. The OSAA also participates in High School RIO, an internet-based data collection tool that tracks concussions and the array of other injuries.

In spite of some schools that have not responded, van der Voo said they have “mountains of data” and are only beginning to glean useful information. Cheerleading, for example, has resulted in more concussions that she expected.

But data from plenty of sources still show football remains the concussion king in U.S. school sports.

Pendleton High junior wide receiver Cam Sandford suffered two concussions during football games his sophomore year.

He said his first in 2016 when he went out for a pass, caught the ball but slipped and smacked his head.

“I was just dizzy ... didn’t remember anything after that,” he said.

The second came on a hit after a play was over.

“I got a cheap shot hit right in the side of my helmet,” he said. “And all I remember is I played one more play and it was really blurry after that, and I don’t remember too much after it.”

He felt tired, he said, and “didn’t feel motivated to do much.” The feeling lasted two or three days.

Despite the health concerns, Sandford was ready to give football another go for his junior season.

“I knew that I wanted to come back and contribute to my team because I knew we were going to have a strong squad that year and I wanted to be a part of the family,” he said.

He also said he was aware of findings that link concussions to brain damage later in life.

“I always hear stuff about how it affects players after they’re done,” he said, “but I don’t really think about it too much, I just go out there and play but try to keep myself safe.”

Concussion diagnosis has improved during the last decade, Earl said, and education is key.

“The more education we have, the more (concussions) we are catching,” he said. He undoubtedly the Oregon school data will reveal helpful patterns.

Van der Voo said that’s the whole point of the massive undertaking to obtain these public records:

“I really hope that in the end, we’re going to be able to give parents and school officials and coaches information that they don’t already have to help kids with concussions,” she said.

To take on the task of sifting through the data and telling the stories inside, InvestigateWest teamed up with the Pamplin Media Group and the University of Oregon’s Agora Journalism Center. Their joint project is “Rattled: Oregon’s Concussion Discussion.” You can view more about it here:

— East Oregonian reporter Eric Singer contributed to this story.

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