Legislation aims to protect students - on and off the field - from the lasting effects of brain injury

SPRINGFIELD - State Senator Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago 13th) and advocates — from a pediatric sports medicine expert to the son of a Super Bowl winner whose brain injury cost him his quality of life — testified today in a Senate committee that approved tough new protections for students who suffer concussions.

"As a parent of two children who have suffered concussions, I understand that brains take time to heal," Raoul said. "With emergency plans in place and an awareness of the accommodations needed for youth who sustain concussions, schools can help their students reach their full potential and avoid debilitating brain injuries."

Tregg Duerson testified to committee members about his father, Dave Duerson, whose professional football career spanned eleven seasons and included a Super Bowl win with the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears. After retiring from the NFL, the elder Duerson began experiencing headaches, dizzy spells, memory loss, depression and flashes of anger and irritability. He believed he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease brought on by repeated blows to the head, and before taking his life in 2011, he asked his family to donate his brain to Boston University researchers who could test for CTE. The autopsy confirmed his self-diagnosis, and at least 20 other deceased professional football players have been found to have suffered from the disease.

Raoul and Duerson cropped web"My father and his peers played football at the highest level at a time when concussions were mismanaged," the younger Duerson said. "Awareness is now at an all-time high, and now is the time for our generation to get it right. My hope is that we don't see CTE developing in today's young players, because we get it right and manage their head injuries appropriately."

"Concussion is often an 'invisible injury'; most people who have a concussion don't lose consciousness, and symptoms can manifest themselves up to 24 hours later," said Dr. Cynthia LaBella, medical director of the Institute of Sports Medicine at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital and an expert in pediatric concussions. "It's important for a child who has had a concussion to take a cognitive rest, with accommodations such as attending school part-time, giving extra time to complete assignments and limiting time spent reading or looking at an electronic device. We know now that it takes even longer for younger children to recover from concussions than older youth, so expanding state law to cover elementary and middle school students, not just high school students, is key."

Senate Bill 7, sponsored by Raoul and co-sponsored by Senators Dan Kotowski and Ira Silverstein, expands current requirements so that all children participating in school-sponsored athletic activities are protected – at the elementary, middle and high school levels and at public, private and charter schools. These requirements include having emergency plans in place to deal with severe injuries that arise during sporting events, designating a "concussion oversight team" of health care professionals to develop and implement concussion policies and following Illinois High School Association protocols for taking student athletes out of a practice or game and allowing them to return after a concussion. The IHSA supports the legislation.

For the first time, the measure also requires schools to have "return-to-learn" policies in place so students who have suffered concussions – at a school-sponsored athletic event or anywhere else — can ease back into classroom attendance and academic work. The sponsors and supporters emphasized that a gradual return to both physical and cognitive activity is necessary to allow the brain to heal. Dr. LaBella testified that sustaining a second concussion before fully recovering from a first increases a person's likelihood of developing long-term complications.

"For many of our young people, playing a sport is a powerful opportunity for achievement, personal growth, fitness and teamwork," Raoul said. "We want to ensure the door of opportunity stays open for youth to continue playing but also to succeed in the classroom and lead long, healthy lives."

Now that the Senate Education Committee has recommended the legislation, it will go to the full Senate for a vote.

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