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Cheerleader safety in its infancy

Six years after founding an organization to promote the safety of cheerleaders, former Medford resident Kimberly Archie says schools across the country are still years away from enacting any meaningful changes in regulations to protect cheerleaders.

Archie, who helped form the National Cheer Safety Foundation in 2008, said that while countless cheerleaders have walked away from the sport with catastrophic injuries and concussions, school districts are required to follow only limited safety protocols to protect them. "The amount of injuries is staggering," said Archie, who lives in Southern California.

Archie's daughter, Tiffani Bright, broke her arm during cheerleading practice at a tumbling gym in Medford as a teenager in 2003, prompting Archie to take cheerleading safety more seriously.

As the parent club president of the North Medford High School cheer team back then, Archie said she and the team typically took few precautions during practice and games, sometimes not even having a first-aid kit on hand.

Realizing the potential for injuries at the high school, Archie decided to meet with the Medford School District several times to review its safety procedures.

She said the district repeatedly told her it was following state protocols for cheerleading, which Archie believes weren't strong enough to protect the young athletes.

"After dozens of meetings, I realized the national rules must be the problem then," said Archie, who thinks the lack of legislation to protect cheerleaders sets school districts up for lawsuits.

"If they have no fall protection in place, that's child abuse," said Archie. "Every program should have a rehearsed catastrophic injury plan."

A lawsuit filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court last week by a former Hillsboro cheerleader accuses the Hillsboro School District and the girl's coaches of failing to protect her from a head injury she suffered while cheering in 2010.

Jazmin Manjarrez filed the lawsuit on behalf of her daughter Mikaila Manjarrez, who she said hit her head multiple times on the knees of other cheerleaders after being tossed into the air during a game.

The lawsuit asks for $850,000 in emotional distress and medical costs, and alleges that the coaches and school district failed to follow Oregon's concussion law.

In 2010, the state made a law requiring high school sports coaches to undergo annual training to recognize concussion symptoms and remove athletes suspected of a concussion from games.

Archie said she would prefer to see stricter laws in place for schools across the country to better protect athletes.

She believes coaches should be trained to recognize and treat heat illnesses, head injuries and heart problems, and that automated external defibrillators should be required at every playing field and gym.

Archie said 8,000 youths go to an emergency room every day for sports injuries, and 90 percent of the injuries are preventable.

She said the NCSF has helped make people more aware of the dangers of cheerleading injuries, but it will be years before laws and regulations are changed to significantly decrease the number of injuries.

"The awareness that we brought was really a cultural thing. I think there is awareness, but there hasn't been a real change," she said.

The NCSF collects reports of injuries to cheerleaders and other athletes to study trends and work on measures to lessen the chance of similar injuries happening.

Six universities across the nation, including the University of Oregon, have taken the advice of the NCSF to strengthen safety protocols even without legislation requiring them to do so.

"They've really gone out on a limb," she said. "They're pioneers."

Archie hopes other universities and high schools will follow suit in the coming years.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.