Jeffco Public Schools hired a nurse to help students who suffer concussions succeed in the classroom

Last school year, the school district had 1,742 students treated for concussions

Toni Grishman poses for a portrait at Dunstan Middle School on Aug. 7, 2019 in Longmont. Grishman was hired by Jefferson County Public Schools to be a full-time concussion/TBI nurse. She will begin this year handling schools in the JeffCo school district. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
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Algebra is hard enough, but when a student suffers a concussion the math problems can become even more challenging.

So after treating 1,742 students for concussions last school year, Jeffco Public Schools has hired a nurse who specializes in brain injury to help student succeed in the classroom after a brain injury. Toni Grishman, the new nurse, will work with teachers, coaches and other staff because concussions are especially dangerous for young people whose brains are still developing.

“Algebra is taxing to the brain,” said Karen McAvoy, a Fort Collins psychologist, who worked with the school district to develop its concussion protocol.

McAvoy was a psychologist at Grandview High School in 2004 when football player Jake Snakenberg died of second-impact syndrome, a sometimes fatal condition caused by two concussions in quick succession. After the tragedy she worked to pass the Jake Snakenberg Youth Sports Concussion Act, which required student athletes to get medical approval to return to play after having a concussion.

Jeffco Public Schools is part of BrainSTEPS, a program that works with school districts in the state to support students with brain injuries. Last year, the BrainSTEPS team received more than 50 referrals to work with students struggling with brain trauma. That led the district to reevaluate its concussion protocol.

At Jeffco, McAvoy wanted teachers to understand that returning to schoolwork can be just as challenging for a student with a concussion as returning to the gridiron. Brain injuries make it harder for people to focus on things that are mentally challenging, which includes academics.

Although sports injuries, especially soccer and football, are the main cause people associate with youth concussions, high school students get concussions in a range of other ways. Any impact that causes the brain to move inside the skull — such as the whiplash from a car accident –can cause a concussion.

Brenna Cline, the athletic trainer at Columbine High School, said that students don’t always understand the ramifications of brain injuries.

“They think that they can continue on with their life without any repercussions,” she said. “And when you have an injury to the brain that’s just not true.”

Healing is a team effort, Cline said, and she works closely with school nurses and teachers.

Headaches, neck pain and difficulty concentrating are common concussion symptoms, but students can also struggle with emotional issues such as stress and anxiety.

Prolonged bed rest can actually be counterproductive to recovery, Grishman said. When students are stuck inside a dark room all day without being able to see their friends or talk to them online, they get depressed, and it takes them longer to recover.

Addressing how students can succeed in spite of their symptoms will be a big part of Grishman’s job. For some, that might mean temporarily going on a 504 plan, which gives students with disabilities accommodations in the classroom. For others, it might mean making sure they have access to mental health services.

For students dealing with physical symptoms like headaches or noise sensitivity, something as simple as giving them earplugs or glasses to use in the classroom can help them adjust.

“We want to make sure that we give them access to whatever it is they need to be able to succeed,” said Julie Wilken, director of health services at Jeffco Public Schools.

This story was completed with information from Reveal’s Reporting Networks. revealnews.org/network.

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