A former Missoula high schooler's death after a 2010 college football scrimmage prompted broad reform of how Montana schools handle head injuries, but a University of Montana study says that without further action the law may not live up to its intent.
A survey of school officials and coaches presented to lawmakers this month identified barriers to implementing the 2013 Dylan Steigers Protection of Youth Athletes Act, while suggesting the law itself be expanded to include sports activities that aren't sponsored by schools.
The survey's chief finding is that while most Montana schools have adopted the necessary policies, they are "grossly understaffed with appropriate health care professionals" to treat concussed athletes and help educate students, parents and coaches. According to project director and UM associate professor Valerie Moody, nearly half of schools included in the survey didn't have direct access to an athletic trainer or school nurse.
"I was blown away by how few there are," she says of nurses in particular.
Moody, herself an athletic trainer, is evaluating the Dylan Steigers Act after lawmakers last year passed a bill mandating a study of its implementation. As part of their study, Moody and her team are also examining concussion safety practices within non-school sanctioned sports leagues—club teams, YMCA groups, rodeo, youth football and others—that are not governed by the current law.
"Just knowing from the Missoula area, I know that very few organizations have something in place right now," she says. "Or if they do, it's very much not in compliance with what's recommended nationally. I don't think it's on a lot of people's radar if it doesn't have to be on their radar."
The UM researchers would like to do a more comprehensive study, but thus far their work has been unfunded since the Department of Public Health and Human Services decided to "back out" last July, Moody says.
In particular, they had hoped to follow the survey findings with a series of focus groups to better understand how the law could be more effective, research assistant Emily Tosoni says.
"We just basically wanted to focus on ... the actual needs of the communities in Montana so that this legislation isn't just another piece of rhetoric," she says.
Tosoni spearheaded an initial review of the state's concussion law in 2014 while working for DPHHS and first brought her results to Moody last spring. She has been assisting the UM research team since leaving her state job in September, donating her time on the project.
"It's been kind of crazy that we can't get anyone to fund us to get that work done, even though there was a legislative study bill passed to require [it]," Tosoni says.