The Voluntary Use of Physical Education Safety Guidelines in Schools: Safety Guidelines Can Reduce Injuries and the Risk of Legal Action. So Why Are They Often Unused?

Article excerpt

Public schools in North America have been bombarded with calls to expand their physical education programs to reduce sedentary lifestyles and promote physical activity among students. As physical activity programs are expanded, increasing attention is being given to safety and injury prevention in schools, particularly in physical education. For example, in the United States about 25 percent of child and adolescent injuries occur on school premises (Danesco, Miller, & Spicer, 2000), of which school gymnasiums are noteworthy sites. Of the injuries that required medical treatment between 1986 and 1994, 22 percent occurred while the children were engaging in gymnasium-based activities (Backx, Beijer, Bol, & Erich, 1991, Jacobson, 1996).

Ni, Barnes, and Hardy (2002) conducted an epidemiological study and concluded that the average annual rate of recreational injuries for children in the United States between the ages of six and 17 is about 91.2 episodes per 1,000 children. The common place of injury shifts from the home to school and sport facilities as children become older. The picture is similar in Canada. A senior analyst for the Public Health Agency of Canada could not provide rates, but he did conclude that in 2005, Canadian youths ages six to 18 years old had 228,313 emergency department visits in a Canadian network of 14 pediatric hospitals. Of these, 41,833 (18.3%) occurred in school gymnasiums (personal communication, July 7, 2007).

Dealing with the Issue

The statistics offer a challenge for physical education specialists and school administrators, who have the responsibility to protect students from preventable injuries (Gaskin, 1993). Some have adopted safety guidelines to better ensure that the school environment is safe and conducive to optimal learning and development (Preece, 2004, 2005). Safety guidelines represent minimum standards for safe practices that physical education specialists can implement in order to minimize the risks associated with participation in physical activities. Although serious injuries that cannot be foreseen will occur, it is the teachers' and coaches' legal and moral duty to use appropriate methods and procedures that successfully anticipate and eliminate possible risks. Because many physical education activities have a high level of risk, they demand that teachers use a high standard of care. Part of that care is for teachers to be aware of and use appropriate safety guidelines for planning safe physical education activities.

Besides helping to reduce classroom injuries, safety guidelines--if properly used--can reduce the risk of legal action against school district personnel and provide community stakeholders information about school safety. However, this gives rise to several important questions. How are physical education specialists using safety guidelines? Should physical education specialists' use of safety guidelines for classroom activities be mandatory or voluntary? If such use is voluntary, what are some major barriers for implementing them in the class?

One popular argument is that the use of safety guidelines should be mandatory so that all school boards in a jurisdiction have consistent physical education activities, equipment, facilities, and shared standards of safety. A competing point of view holds that the use of safety guidelines should be voluntary. As professionals, physical education teachers have the training and experience to ensure student safety. They feel that they should decide if, when, or how safety guidelines should be used. Both points of view are common practice.

The Alberta Case

In 1999 the Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research (ACICR), of the University of Alberta's School of Public Health, partnered with the Alberta government, community organizations and coalitions, and sports/athletics associations to develop a set of guidelines for use by physical education teachers in all Alberta schools. …