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Tri-State Area considering baseline concussion testing for youth sports

States considering legislation that could change how to detect concussions
States considering legislation that could change how to detect concussions 04:29

NEW YORK -- Safety on the field is at the top of many minds, and here in the Tri-State Area there are new efforts underway to protect young athletes.

CBS2 has more on changing the game when it comes to preventing concussions.

"His spirit is still with me. It's here," Laura Lawney said.

Lawney keeps her son Jared's room almost exactly as he left it -- full of memories.

"His surfboards, his lacrosse sticks," Lawney said.

But not all memories in her Brick, New Jersey, home are happy.

Take the night after a lacrosse game in which he'd collided with a teammate.

"He comes home, I'm cooking dinner, and he says, 'Mom, I don't feel good.' And so I turn around and look at him and he's got a big gash on the side of his face and he is bleeding from his head," Lawney said.

She said she took him to an emergency room, where doctors said he had a concussion.

A couple weeks later, she says a doctor and an athletic trainer said he could return to play, based in part on Jared's statements.

"He lied. He said he was fine. He wasn't," Lawney said.

She describes Jared as a happy kid who never complained of depression. But five weeks after that concussion, he took his own life. Research suggests the rate of suicide is nearly twice as high for people who've suffered traumatic brain injuries.

"He said in his note ... 'My mental health is so bad I don't know what's wrong with me, but I can't take it anymore,'" Lawney said.

His mother may never know exactly why Jared was hurting, but she believes he was still suffering from the impact and experiencing depression as a result. She says Jared's friends later told her he'd continued to complain of headaches weeks after his concussion.

Now, she advocates for widespread use of something called a baseline concussion test -- a test that uses numbers, shapes and colors to gauge an athlete's memory and reaction time before the season, so that if they do get hurt, athletic trainers can use their baseline to help detect how serious the brain injury is.

"It definitely would have kept him off that field for a few more weeks, because he was saying he was fine but that would have told me he wasn't," Lawney said.

Athletic trainer Rick Zappala says it's a valuable tool that he has tested athletes with at Paul D. Schreiber High School on Long Island for years.

"Everybody would be at their computer," Zappala said. "If a score is significantly off, this will light up red."

In New Jersey, state lawmakers are a considering bill that would require baseline testing for athletes in grades 6 through 12. But the tests are not perfect and some studies have called into question how much a baseline test actually helps in diagnosing concussions. Even some concussion safety advocates told CBS2 they don't support mandates.

"I do think it can be part of the clinical puzzle. It's not a main part of it. And I think it's still too early in terms of concussion research to say that it's 100% unnecessary," said Dr. Nathaniel Jones, medical director of the Concussion Clinic at Loyola University in Chicago.

Still, many doctors praise baseline tests as a valuable tool to use along with their other evaluations.

"And truly some of these are budget constraints. Like, not every school district may have the manpower or the money to be able to do this, but a lot of times these don't take much time or a lot of budget," said Dr. Shae Datta of NYU Langone Health.

Zappala says the tests, themselves, are often affordable for districts, but it's staffing to conduct the test that can be a challenge.

"I think that's fine as long as that mandate comes with funding to provide schools with the resources to do it," Zappala said.

State Sen. Vin Gopal argues many districts already have staff that can conduct the tests.

"If that comes and we're hearing that from superintendents or athletic directors, yeah, well, absolutely. I'll add a funding piece to that. But right now, I think the structure is in place," Gopal said.

He is working in New Jersey to convince his colleagues on the baseline testing bill, but, Lawney is already on board.

"I absolutely, absolutely, think a baseline test would have helped," Lawney said.

There are some other ideas out there. A local football league has eliminated kickoffs, and there are even researchers at Columbia University trying to build a helmet that can detect concussions.

CBS2 will have more on that aspect of the story on Monday night on the News at 11.

There are other bills being considered. Among them, schools in New York would be required to report concussions to the state, and another bill that would make New York join 46 other states in requiring athletic trainers to be licensed, not just certified.

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