Investigating concussions: Three things to know about head injuries and playing contact sports

Some say schools are 'flirting with disaster'

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - It's an injury you can't see but one that could affect your child for the rest of their lives.

Concussions happen on the playing fields across South Florida every week.  It's what happens right after a hit that can be a game changer in a student's life.

The Contact 5 Investigators spent months uncovering big gaps in how local schools spot and treat concussions and three things every parent should know.

A few weeks ago under the Friday night lights and the roar of the crowd, Park Vista Senior Renard Cheren had no idea what he was rushing into.

"My head was just ringing at the time," said Cheren after the varsity football player hit his head during a play.  "I just had a big headache, I was just out of it basically," he said.

Cheren had been knocked to the ground with his first concussion.  He wanted back in the game but it was an athletic trainer who pulled him out.

"So I said ‘Alright let's rest, I'll go back on the field when I'm ready," said Cheren.

Since you can't see a concussion, before the season started Cheren took an online test to measure how his brain worked.  And he took the same test again after the concussion.

It's called a baseline test. It's a before and after snapshot of the brain that helps show if any damage has been done and if it's safe for a player to return to the game.

In St. Lucie County, there are no computer tests and no athletic trainers spotting concussions on the field.

"It's a luxury we can't currently afford," said St. Lucie County Schools Athletic Director Jay Stewart.  "If it was there, we would utilize it," said Stewart.

Trainers in other districts like Martin County said, it's not luxury.  "The ones that don't are insanely flirting with disaster," said Barry O'Rourke an athletic trainer for Martin County Schools.

"We had to weigh out our priorities," said Stewart.  Many school districts have faced big budget cuts over the past few years.

None of the counties from Palm Beach to the Treasure Coast require baseline testing.

"We think one of the biggest problems right now is athletes could be returning to sport too soon," said Dr. Evan Peck of the Cleveland Clinic in West Palm Beach.

Dr. Peck has seen two new concussion patients a day since the football season started.

"Having an athletic trainer on the sidelines of every one of those games is of paramount importance," said Dr. Peck.

The Cleveland Clinic has offered free baseline testing for teams throughout Palm Beach County for the past two years. But it's voluntary, it's up to the schools and up to the athletes to participate.

"We're hoping in the future the district will consider a mandatory baseline testing program," said Dr. Peck.

Baseline testing and athletic trainers are mandatory where Diana Brett lives in Broward County.  "It's only 500 dollars per license per school, that's a bake sale," said Brett.

She fought for them to be implemented after she discovered her son was hiding concussions.

"All he wanted to do was play football, so he didn't tell anybody," she said.

"How many concussions did he end up having?" asked Contact 5 Investigator Dan Krauth.

"The number we could come to is about 12 to 13 concussions," Brett responded.  "Daniel finally walked up and said ‘Coach I'm sorry, I cannot see, I can't do this and they pulled him out, that's when I got called in," said Brett.

At 16 years old, Daniel Brett took his own life. His loss started her mission.

"How can we not have baseline testing?" asked Brett. "I don't know how they cannot, you don't put a seatbelt on today and you get a ticket, years ago cars weren't even made with seatbelts, it's a mindset we have to change," she said.

For most areas like Martin County, baseline testing is a money issue. In St. Lucie and Okeechobee Counties administrators said they also don't have enough qualified doctors to interpret the results. Palm Beach County said it plans on expanding its current program but as of now doesn't have any plans to make the program mandatory.

When it comes to helmets, the shape it is in can be another safety factor. All of the counties are supposed to have them reconditioned every year. You can see the last time your child's helmet was restored by checking out the small sticker on the back and the inside of the helmet.

Investigative Producer Lynn Walsh contributed to this story.

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