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By Jami Frankenberry
Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Portsmouth high schools say they plan to phase out the more than 300 football helmets that carry a low safety rating from researchers at Virginia Tech.
A recent report by WVEC-TV identified 17 South Hampton Roads high schools - including 10 of 11 in Virginia Beach - using helmets with a two-star or one-star rating in evaluations by Virginia Tech researchers. The ratings are based on laboratory impact tests, and helmets are given a rating of 1 (marginal) to 5 (best available). Higher-rated helmets are more likely to reduce the risk of suffering a concussion, according to the researchers.
In Virginia Beach, 271 junior varsity and varsity helmets - out of 984 total in the division - received a two-star rating, according to David Rhodes, coordinator of student activities for Virginia Beach Schools. While Tech researchers label these helmets as "adequate," they also advised Virginia Beach officials to no longer purchase helmets rated below three stars.
"It is important to note that the school division hasn't purchased a two-star helmet since 2009 and will not be purchasing anymore," Rhodes said in a statement. "All two-star helmets will be phased out within five years or sooner. In addition, we would like to emphasize that coaches typically use their newer helmet models first. Consequently, this particular helmet (the Schutt Air Advantage) may be shelved for the season at some schools."
Every school in the division but Green Run has at least some helmets below the three-star level.
Along with the 10 Virginia Beach high schools, seven other public schools in South Hampton Roads also have some helmets with one- or two-star ratings: Lakeland (Suffolk), Grassfield (Chesapeake), Churchland (Portsmouth); and Norfolk's Granby, Lake Taylor, Maury and Norview high schools.
Each of the 17 schools with two-star helmets also had helmets rated three stars or higher.
In Norfolk, 79 helmets with a two-star rating are spread among four of its five high schools, said school-system spokeswoman Elizabeth Thiel Mather. Mather added that the majority of Norfolk's helmets are rated in the three- to five-star range on the Virginia Tech scale.
"NPS has studied that research and the athletics department is in the process of phasing out any remaining two-star helmets, categorized as 'adequate' on the two-star scale," Mather wrote in an email. "There are no two-star helmets at the middle schools, and Booker T. Washington (High) has none in active use."
In Portsmouth, Churchland has 29 helmets with a two-star rating, said principal Susan Bechtol, adding that the school plans to replace those within three years. The school has 95 helmets.
Chesapeake and Suffolk have no plans to phase out their two-star helmets but point out that they are following safety guidelines mandated by the VHSL, which governs the state's public schools.
The VHSL requires that helmets be approved by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, and spokesman Mike McCall said NOCSAE sets safety standards for the country's high school state associations.
NOCSAE has raised concerns about the Virginia Tech ratings, saying in a news release last summer that there were "very important limitations" to the research. And the Virginia Tech group acknowledges that its rating system is a tool and not a buying guide.
Dr. Stefan Duma, director of the rating project, told USA Today for an article last summer that he took on the helmet study to fill an information gap.
"Mom and dad and coaches had no independent data to look at," Duma told the paper. "They simply looked at what they thought was the best price or what looked the best. So it was really the first time anyone had scientific data that's independent, and it's really driving the market. People are using it to make informed buying decisions."
His group recommends four- or five-star helmets.
Virginia Beach officials consulted recently with Duma, who recommended phasing out the two-star helmets as quickly as finances allowed.
That will be costly. The Virginia Tech study lists the five-star Riddell Revolution Speed helmet - used by Oscar Smith and Deep Creek in Chesapeake - at $264.99 each. The Schutt Air Advantage helmets - among those used at Grassfield - retail for $159.99.
In Chesapeake, Grassfield has 120 Schutt Air Advantage helmets, according to Kellie Goral, a schools public information officer. The helmets, purchased in 2007, get a two-star rating in the Virginia Tech study, but Goral said via email that the helmets have a NOCSAE stamp and there is no immediate plan to replace them.
In Suffolk, Lakeland has 26 helmets with a two-star rating and 52 with four- or five-star ratings, according to schools spokesperson Bethanne Bradshaw. There are no plans to replace the two-star helmets, Bradshaw said.
"While SPS recognizes the Virginia Tech helmet study as a single indicator on helmet safety, we also recognize that some experts have pointed out some limitations with the study," Kevin Alston, Chief of Operations for Suffolk Schools, said in a statement.
Jami Frankenberry, 757-446-2376
one of the best available
The five-star Riddell Revolution Speed helmet is used by Oscar Smith and Deep Creek. A study by Virginia Tech recommends schools purchase helmets with a three-star or better rating.
In Virginia Beach, 271 out of 984 helmets have a two-star rating.
In Portsmouth, Churchland has 29 helmets with a two-star rating.
In Norfolk, 79 helmets with two-star ratings are spread among four high schools.
In Chesapeake, Grassfield has 120 two-star helmets.
In Suffolk, Lakeland has 26 two-star helmets.
Virginia Tech study www.sbes.vt.edu/helmet.php