Cabell schools now keeping swing sets

By Kyla Asbury | Sep 3, 2010

HUNTINGTON -- Cabell County school officials have halted their planned removal of swings from elementary schools.

After consulting with the West Virginia Department of Education's Office of School Facilities, school officials discovered that swings are required at elementary schools.

"All centers housing kindergarten programs shall contain a segregated blacktopped area and a large grassy area with climbing equipment and swings," the policy states.

All elementary schools in Cabell County offer Kindergarten programs, which means the swings must remain.

"We are taking immediate action to make sure we are in compliance with this policy," said William A. Smith, Superintendent of Cabell County Schools. "Even though we have found the swings must remain at our schools, the issue of unlimited liability in legal actions against school systems statewide still exists."

Smith said he believes the experience has shed a light on a question of law that must be addressed by the state's legislative bodies.

"We still plan to meet with Sen. Evan Jenkins and state Board of Risk and Insurance Management officials to see what can be done to limit exposure to frivolous lawsuits," Smith said.

Earlier this week, Cabell County school safety manager Tim Stewart said the removal process began two weeks ago at Meadows Elementary and may not be completed until Christmas break.

Seventeen of the county's 19 elementary schools had swing sets at the beginning of the school year. Martha and Southside were the only elementary schools without them.

Stewart said a lot of parents are accusing him of being un-American, but he says the cost of maintaining a safe surface is too expensive.

Two lawsuits were filed in the last year against Cabell County schools over swing set injuries.

Stewart said one of the suits involved a student at Spring Hill Elementary who broke his arm jumping off of a swing "like Superman." It was settled for $20,000.

Stewart said no matter what they do, if a child is hurt in an incident, the schools are more than likely going to be blamed for the incident.

Current recommendations call for a protective mulch layer twice the height of the swing in each direction in case someone was to jump off the swing.

Stewart said the county has tried to maintain up to 10 inches of bark mulch on the playgrounds, but the material easily breaks down or gets washed away and has to be replaced often to meet the depth required by national safety standards.

Upgrading the bark mulch around the playground's equipment to rubber-based surfaces is the alternative, but was deemed too expensive.

Stewart estimates using the material would cost up to $8,000 to surround each of the 36 swing sets at 17 elementary schools. The material would also have to be replaced every seven years, which Stewart said would have meant an investment of $576,000.

"I see a high potential when it comes to swings and lawsuits," Stewart said.

Other equipment, such as the monkey bars, will remain. Stewart said the schools are able to maintain the proper protection underneath them.

Jenkins plans to request the Board of Risk and Insurance Management provide claims history of swing set injuries statewide and in Cabell County.

Jenkins had said if the removal of swing sets were to continue, he feared it would have a chilling effect on support from the Legislature, parents, teachers and local business owners who help build and pay for school playgrounds.

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