First Person

Better helmets, stricter laws needed to protect student athletes

Dr. Igor Szczyrba’s world is one of abstract mathematical formulae and complex software, not high school locker rooms and football sidelines. Yet from his research may come one key to keeping young athletes safe.

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Riddell is embedding sensors in some football helmets so researchers can study what types of hits are most likely to produce concussions.

Szczyrba (pronounced “Surba”) is a professor of mathematical sciences at the University of Northern Colorado, and for the past 10 years his research has focused on computer modeling of traumatic brain injuries.

Last week, at a supercomputing conference in New Orleans, Intel, working with football helmet manufacturer Riddell, announced that Szczyrba is among a group of researchers whose modeling will be used to predict what sort of on-field hits are most likely to produce dangerous head injuries, and to suggest in which part of the brain such injuries might occur.

“We want to develop some brain injury criteria,” said Szczyrba, who is collaborating with his son, software engineer Rafal Szczyrba, and Martin Burtscher, an associate professor at Texas State University in San Marcos who received his doctorate in computer science from the University of Colorado in 2000.

A better way to predict and detect concussions

“I’m not a physician, but my understanding is that right now, at high school and university football games, if a player takes a blow to the head, the coach asks him some questions based on a questionnaire. And based on their answers they decide if there’s a chance there’s a concussion.  But we want to do more,” Szczyrba said.

“If it’s a minor concussion, they might not even know it. The problem with minor brain injuries is that they may not be immediately apparent. A brain hematoma may start very slowly, and even if you do an MRI, it might not show up immediately. You cannot judge immediately whether there’s been a concussion based on the behavior of a football player. That’s why it’s important to help physicians predict the probability of an injury.”

Dr. Igor Szczyrba, a math professor at UNC, has spent the past 10 years developing computer models of traumatic brain injury.

The modeling to be done by Szczyrba and his colleagues will involve data collected from sensors placed inside football helmets. These sensors will measure the acceleration or movement of a player’s head inside the helmet during a hit.

Research indicates that the most dangerous brain injuries appear when the head rotates on the neck. By analyzing the angle and force of each hit, and comparing those hits that cause concussions to those that do not, researchers may be able not only to design helmets that provide better protection, but also imbed chips in those helmets that can alert coaches and physicians when a player has taken a potentially dangerous hit.

“In the past we’ve tried to do similar studies on car accidents,” Szczyrba said. “You can estimate the acceleration of the car, the acceleration of the body, especially the head, but it’s very imprecise because you cannot tell how a body is moving in the car. This is the first time we’re getting the data from football helmets, and data from cars is not as good as data from helmets.”

Szczyrba has just received the first set of data. He hopes that within a year, he and his colleagues will have be able to produce some definitive findings.

Legislation likely to be introduced in Colorado next year

Meanwhile, expect concussions and how they are treated in school-age athletes to become an increasingly hot topic in Colorado. At least one major conference on the topic is planned for Denver in February, and officials from a number of agencies that deal with brain injuries are working to draft legislation they hope will be introduced in the upcoming Colorado General Assembly.

“Already there are half a dozen states where such legislation has passed or is pending, so it’s not just Colorado,” said Gavin Attwood, executive director of the Brain Injury Association of Colorado. “Part of that wave is because there has been increased research around the effects of concussion on young brains. The brains of high school athletes heal a lot slower than adults. I can’t give you a reason why, but they do.”

“The other thing that’s being observed is that if you have several concussions, there can be longterm cognitive issues for the students,” Attwood said. “It could be a lack of concentration, or irritability or depression. So what the country has to say is, ‘Hey, we love that our youth play sports and in no way are we trying to put a stop to that, but we’ve got to manage concussions carefully. Otherwise, these kids will potentially have cognitive issues later in life.”

The exact number of sports-related concussions suffered by Colorado students annually isn’t known, but based on extrapolation from national data, officials estimate somewhere between 1,349 and 2,510 such concussions each year result in emergency room visits. But the actual number is likely far greater, since many more injured youngsters never make it to the emergency room, and often never receive any sort of treatment at all.

Attwood said the proposed legislation in Colorado will mostly likely address three issues: mandatory education about concussions for all coaches, even volunteer coaches; mandatory removal from the field of play for young athletes suspected of sustaining a concussion; and prohibition from returning to play without the approval of a medical professional with training in treating concussions.

Conference planned for February

The Brain Injury Association will host a conference, “When Mild Traumatic Brain Injury is Not Really Mild,” on Feb. 4 in Denver. Keynote speaker will be Dr. Ron Savage, chairman and co-founder of the International Pediatric Brain Injury Society and “the guru of all things about disability in the school system,” said Rhonda Rickett, coordinator of the event.

“He built the model for brining parents and schools together as very direct partners in educating students with disabilities,” she said.

The REAP Project (Reduce, Educate, Accommodate, Pace) is a community-based model for concussion management developed in Colorado.

Also speaking will be Dr. Karen McAvoy, a licensed child psychologist and director of the Center for Concussion at the Rocky Mountain Youth Sports Medicine Institute. From 2004 to 2007, McAvoy was manager of a Centers for Disease Control study on concussion in high school athletes. The researchers followed 92 student athletes with concussions over three years.

Based on that study, McAvoy developed the REAP Project (Reduce, Educate, Accommoate, Pace), a model program for concussion management that health officials hope will be adopted throughout Colorado. During its pilot 2009-10 school year, when it was in place in four Colorado school districts, the REAP project received more than 150 referrals of athletes treated in emergency rooms for concussion. The families of those injured athletes were quickly contacted by REAP so that parents could know what to look for and how to gradually ease the youngsters back into activity without further harm or risk.

For more information

To read more about Szczyrba’s Traumatic Brain Injury research and to see animated computer models, go here and select “animations.”

To see a simulation of a collision between football players and how their heads rotate, see this article in geek.com.

Read the latest recommendations for enhancing athlete safety, released in September by the Colorado Youth Sports Concussions Special Interest Group.

Read this post on the safety of youth football by EdNews Parent expert Chris Strater.

First Person

I’ve spent years fighting for integrated schools in New York City. I’m also Asian-American. Mayor de Blasio, let’s talk.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents weigh in on a proposal to integrate District 2 middle schools by making them enroll students with a range of academic abilities earlier this year.

Dear Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza,

I write as a school integration advocate, racial justice activist, public school mother, and a first-generation Japanese-American.

I have spent years working with other parents to make New York City’s public school system more equitable, facilitating conversations on school integration as a means to dismantle racism in our society. I believe it is past time we address the segregation in New York City public schools, and I agree that something must be done with the specialized high schools — which currently admit few black and Latinx students — as part of this work.

However, I am concerned about how you’ve rolled out this proposal without including the people it will affect.

As opposition mounts and the Asian communities across the city mobilize against your plan, I wanted to share some thoughts so that you are better prepared to create a meaningful dialogue on perhaps the most complex part of the school integration work.

I would like to ask three things from you. One is to please see us Asian New Yorkers for who we are.

There is no question that Asians have been (and many still are) marginalized and disempowered. If one learns the history of Asians in the U.S., she understands that our past is filled with violence and struggles. Our history is steeped in discriminatory policies at federal and local levels, including the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment. We were only given the “model minority” status because doing so was convenient for domestic and international politics.

We are also a very diverse group of people, representing more than four dozen countries. This fact alone makes it very difficult to make any general statements about us.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we should be ignored in this conversation or inaccurately lumped in with whites. High average test scores do not automatically equal privilege, and they are certainly no match for white supremacy — a concept many self-proclaimed “non-racists” are unable to recognize. This lack of understanding makes it nearly impossible to identify Asians as oppressed people of color.

The second thing I ask is to bring all of us – whites, blacks, Latinx, and Asians (East, South, and Southeast Asians) – together to develop solutions to integrate our schools.

The unfortunate fact is that our city is not typically equipped to have productive conversations about race and racism. And if racism of white against black/Latinx is difficult to grasp for some, understanding how Asians fit into this discourse is even harder.

Our position is so complicated, even racial justice activists – including Asians themselves – often do not know how to talk about us. When we are not ignored, we are perceived as “outsiders,” even if this is the only country some of us know.

But there is no reason we can’t work together. History tells us that Asians have been fighting for civil rights alongside black and Latinx people for decades, even after the white system began using us as pawns. Even in the highly contentious affirmative action arena, in which some Asians have been co-opted by white anti-affirmative action groups, many Asians remain in favor of affirmative action and are continuing to fight for equity for all people of color.

Finally, to make that work, I ask that you adopt a “bottom up and top down” approach, in which community conversations and shared decision-making happen under your leadership. Such a framework has been proposed by a group of advocates, including students.

The Department of Education has already hosted a series of town halls to solicit ideas on diversifying our schools, and has done a good job of getting people to come out. However, on this proposal for the specialized high schools, there was no consultation with affected communities, including students.

Let’s practice what we preach and have an inclusive, participatory process. Let’s not ignore the Asian community when we talk about school integration, and let’s specifically include Asian voices — parents and students — in this discussion about specialized schools and all schools. Let’s have real conversations aimed at uniting those who have been marginalized, not dividing them. And let’s explain how these decisions will be made and why.

This is an opportunity to start a conversation that should have happened when Brown v. Board of Education was decided 64 years ago, and to create more equitable, integrated schools. Let’s make sure we do it right.

Shino Tanikawa is the vice president of District 2’s Community Education Council and a school integration advocate.

First Person

If teachers aren’t equipped to help trauma victims, students suffer. Learn from my story.

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

It took one of my kindergarten students, Andrew, to help me figure out how to handle my toughest teaching challenge.

My classroom wall was full of pictures that Andrew had drawn for me. He often greeted me at the door with a smile. But Andrew would also scream, act out, and even hurt himself in my class.

For quite some time, I thought that if I could find a different way to ask him to get back on task, maybe he would not become so aggressive, not bang his head on the floor. But regardless of how tactfully I approached keeping him engaged or redirected his behavior, Andrew would implode. And with little to no support, I quickly grew weary and helpless.

Eventually, I did learn how to help students like Andrew. I also eventually realized that when you teach students who have been impacted by trauma, you have to balance ownership and the reality that you cannot solve every problem. But the trial and error that it took to reach that point as a teacher was exhausting.

I hope we, as a profession, can do better for new Memphis teachers. In the meantime, maybe you can learn from my story.

I grew up in a trauma-filled household, where I learned to mask my hurt and behave like a “good girl” to not bring attention to myself. It wasn’t until a high school teacher noticed how hard I flinched at being touched and privately expressed concerns that I got help. After extensive investigations and professional support, I was on the road to recovery.

When I became a teacher myself, and met Andrew and many students like him, I began to see myself within these children. But that didn’t mean I knew how to reach them or best help them learn. All I knew to do when a child was misbehaving was to separate them from the rest of the classroom. I didn’t have the training to see past a student’s bad behavior and help them cope with their feelings.

It took a while to learn not to internalize Andrew’s attacks, even when they became physical. No matter what Andrew did, each day we started over. Each day was a new opportunity to do something better, learn from a mistake, or work on developing a stronger bond.

I learned to never discipline when I am upset and found success charting “trigger behaviors,” using them to anticipate outbursts and cut down on negative behaviors.

Over time, I learned that almost all students are more receptive when they feel they have a real relationship with the teacher. Still, each case must be treated differently. One student may benefit from gentle reminders, private conversations, or “social stories” that underscore the moral of a situation. Another student may respond to firm consequences, consistent routines, or reflection journals.

Still other students sit in our classrooms each and every day and are overlooked due to their mild-mannered demeanor or their “cooperativeness.” My childhood experiences made me aware of how students mask trauma in ways very unlike Andrew. They also made me realize how imperative it is for teachers to know that overachieving students can need just as much help as a child that physically acts out.

I keep a watchful eye on students that are chronically fatigued or overly sensitive to noise or touch, jumping for minor reasons. I encourage teachers to pay close attention to students that have intense hygiene issues, as their incontinence could be acting as a defense mechanism, and I never ignore a child who is chronically withdrawn from their peers or acting out of character.

All of this took time in the classroom and effort processing my own experiences as a student with trauma. However, many teachers in Memphis aren’t coming from a similar background and haven’t been trained to see past a student’s disruptive behavior.

It’s time to change the way we support teachers and give educators intense trauma training. Often, compassionate teachers want to help students but don’t know how. Good training would help educators develop the skills they need to reach students and to take care of themselves, since working with students that have been impacted by trauma can be incredibly taxing.

Trial and error aren’t enough: If teachers are not equipped to help trauma victims, the quality of students’ education will suffer.

Candace Hines teaches kindergarten for the Achievement School District, and previously taught kindergarten for six years with Shelby County Schools. She also is an EdReports content reviewer and a coach and facilitator for Teach Plus Memphis. Hines serves as a fellow for Collaborative for Student Success and a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow.