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Penn Hills School District develops concussion-management policy

| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 8:30 p.m.

Pam Bonnett said she initially received little help for the concussion she got when a softball hit her in the head in 2010.

The Penn Hills High School student developed sensitivity to lights and noise that made finishing her sophomore year impossible.

“I still tried to go (to class)”, said Bonnett, 19, an A student who since has graduated and now attends Community College of Allegheny County.

“But I was just like a body there. I couldn't comprehend anything.”

Bonnett said her neurologist recommended complete rest, but it took three weeks for school officials to agree to homebound schooling.

“I don't think they ever believed me as to how bad it actually was,” Bonnett said. “They would just tell me to do the work.”

But she couldn't, she said.

District spokeswoman Teresita Kolenchak said Penn Hills School District has dealt with concussions such as Bonnett's on a case-by-case basis “because, for example, a concussion could have symptoms ranging from severe cognitive loss to occasional headaches.”

Kolenchak said the district does not comment specifically on student cases.

“Each student would need to be accommodated differently,” she said.

Now, however, the school board's policy committee is working to develop procedures for dealing with concussions, along with a policy related to sudden cardiac arrest.

The group is also making minor changes to its interscholastic athletics policy.

Superintendent Thomas Washington said the committee has been doing a districtwide review to update policies and introduce new ones where needed.

Washington said the academic needs of students who have suffered a concussion is also something the district wants to address.

“What we'll probably do to get ahead of this thing is put procedures in place to look at this, so that if a student needs some adaptations to return to class, we can accommodate them,” he said.

Penn Hills' examination of concussion policy comes on the heels of criticism from brain injury specialists, who say the Pennsylvania Safety in Youth Sports Act, which took effect in July, is a good law but does not address all concussion-related issues.

Student athletes now get testing before they can return to play, but no law addresses what happens to students with cognitive problems after a concussion.

“Our worry was that people weren't going to pay attention to (students') return to school,” said Brenda Eagan Brown, coordinator of BrainSTEPS, a school re-entry program developed by the Brain Injury Association of Pennsylvania for the state Health and Education departments.

The only state policy dealing with academics and concussions is one meant to accommodate students taking achievement exams, said Tim Eller, an Education Department spokesman.

It excuses a student with severe symptoms from taking the test and does not penalize the school.

Experts say concussions can cause students to have trouble learning because of persistent headaches, dizziness, vision and memory problems.

Because public schools receive government money, they're obligated to accommodate youths with disabilities, including concussion-related problems.

The Brain Injury Association estimates that 20,000 school-age children in Pennsylvania get concussions each year, based on data from the Centers from Disease Control and the state's school-age population.

In the past year, BrainSTEPS began offering schools training to set up their own concussion-management teams, Brown said.

About 80 percent of youths recover from concussions within four weeks.

School-based team members can help monitor their symptoms and academic progress and alert BrainSTEPS specialists to step in if a student needs more help, she said.

So far, 149 school districts, 16 private schools and five career and technical centers have formed two-person teams.

Penn Hills is not currently one of BrainSTEP's partner districts, according to BrainSTEP Program Coordinator Brenda Eagan Brown.

Brown's goal is to establish a team in every school, or at least every district.

“We're going to keep offering (the training) on a rolling basis, in the hopes of getting them all,” she said.

The Penn Hills School Board met March 11, and Washington said the policies would be on the board's voting agenda.

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Brian Bowling is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or

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