A FOX13 Investigation found playgrounds at public schools in Tennessee are not on the same page, with each district deciding individually how often playgrounds are inspected, and who inspects them.
Playgrounds are a common place where young children are injured, with more than 200,000 children treated in U.S. emergency rooms each year with playground-related injuries, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most injuries occur on public playgrounds, including those at local schools.
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Despite mandatory monthly fire drills, and required health inspections of cafeterias, a spokesperson for Tennessee’s Department of Education said, when it comes to school playgrounds, districts make up safety inspections and procedures on their own.
Family Sues Shelby County Schools Following Playground Injury
FOX13 Consumer Investigator Kristin Leigh began asking districts about playground safety procedures after a 9-year-old was injured at Peabody Elementary in Memphis in August 2016.
The student was playing basketball on the school’s court, when the steel rim fell off, knocked the child’s tooth out, and cut his face. The child’s family filed a $50,000 lawsuit against the Shelby County Board of Education in Shelby County Circuit Court in July.
The family claims schools officials didn’t do enough to keep the school playground safe, according to the family’s attorney, Darrell Castle.
“Basketball goals don’t just fall,” Castle told FOX13. “If you inspected them, you might be able to see that perhaps they’re just barely hanging there and need to be fixed.”
The lawsuit claims schools officials and employees “did not adequately supervise children” and they “failed to maintain the basketball hoop.”
“You can’t have dangerous conditions out there,” Castle said. “People’s kids are going to be injured.”
What’s Required of Local Schools?
With the 9-year-old’s family arguing school officials don’t do enough to protect children, FOX13 began asking what school districts are required to do to prevent playground injuries.
“This issue is largely handled locally,” Sara Gast, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Education, told FOX13 via email. “There are also broader state rules on school facilities, which mention playgrounds.”
Gast directed FOX13 to a document by Tennessee’s State Board of Education, which describes rules for school districts to follow. It offers one sentence for districts to follow when considering children’s safety on school playgrounds.
“Playgrounds and physical education facilities shall be well maintained, free from hazards, and large enough to permit an adequate program of physical education,” the document states.
Districts are responsible for for maintenance that is need to ensure facilities meet guidelines, Gast said.
“All school structures have to comply with local building codes, ordinances, and board policies,” Gast added. “Adherence to these requirements would be monitored locally.”
Gathering the Facts from Local Districts
With very little oversight or documentation by the state, FOX13 submitted public records requests to Shelby County, Collierville, Germantown, and Tipton County Schools; asking each district to provide records describing their playground safety procedures.
Shelby County Schools
FOX13 paid $350 for more than 700 pages of inspection paperwork from Shelby County Schools.
The district inspects each of its playgrounds twice each year, unless a follow-up or special circumstance presents requires an additional inspection, according to the documents. Most planned inspections occur toward the beginning of a semester, in January or February and August or September.
The school district uses a safety screener from the United States Department of Human Services that’s guided by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The screener is primarily focused on classroom safety, but there is one section dedicated to playgrounds.
The most recent report from each elementary school in the district is provided at the end of this story, with the schools listed in alphabetical order.
Tipton County Schools
Glenn Turner is the safety manager for Tipton County Schools.
Turner told FOX13 he inspects playgrounds about once per month. The district doesn’t have a formal record-keeping process for its inspections, but Turner invited our reporter to shadow him during an inspection at a local playground.
“We think student safety is very important,” turner said, adding that he’s certified by two national organizations to inspect playgrounds. “The National Recreation and Park Association has guidelines, as well as the Consumer Product Safety Commission on playground safety and design. We follow those.”
Turner checked slides, swings, and hanging bars, and other equipment for loose bolts, wasps nests, broken pieces, and other hazards.
“It’s well worthwhile to have someone designated to do that each month,” Turner told FOX13.
He said he trains school teachers and employees to look for hazards at the beginning of each school year, in addition to his regular inspections.
Germantown Municipal School District has two elementary school playgrounds, which are checked monthly.
“The plant managers are responsible for doing inspections,” Josh Cathey, GMSD’s Chief of Operations, said in an email to FOX13. “If there are findings, they put in work orders and coordinate with our maintenance department to schedule repairs.”
Records show monthly inspections get results. In September, a plant manager found fencing and surface hazards, according to the month’s safety checklist. Cathey said the hazards have since been fixed.
It’s not clear in the public records whether GMSD created its own checklist, or if the district followed any national playground safety standard.
You can view August’s and September’s inspections below.
Collierville Schools checks its playgrounds once a year, according to a statement from the district in response to our public information request.
“The responsibility is delegated to the Chief Operating Officer, who – along with the Operations Specialist – supervises the plant managers at each school,” Jeff Jones, the district’s Chief of Staff, said in an emailed letter.
The plant managers are provided with two checklists published by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Jones added.
“These documents guide plant managers in their annual inspections of playground equipment,” Jones said.
The district also completes a safety inspection guided by the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“Our students, parents, and other stakeholders may rest assuered that our elementary playgrounds are – and will continue to be – safe spaces for children,” Jones said.
The full response from the district, a record of work orders placed repair school equipment, and copies of the inspectors’ checklists are included below.
SCS Responds to Family’s Lawsuit
In addition to records FOX13 obtained through its open records request, SCS said faculty members look for playground hazards daily.
“Plant Managers (custodial/grounds) conduct their daily inspection of the campus to include checking the playground area,” a spokesperson for the district said via email. “Risk Management does periodic safety inspections of schools to include the playground area.”
The spokesperson said she could not comment on the lawsuit.
“We take all matters involving student safety very seriously,” the statement read. “We are unable to comment further at this time due to pending litigation.”
Castle and the family he represents maintain that if schools were properly inspected, someone would have noticed a rim barely hanging from the basketball goal.
In addition to monetary damages for medical expenses, Castle said the family hopes to influence school officials to make playgrounds more safe.
“They would very much like to be an influence in getting the Shelby County school system to properly maintain their playgrounds so that other kids aren't injured,” Castle said. “You’re required to take care of these kids and to watch them, and not treat them with disdain.”
* Mentioned documents:
- SCS Inspections - A THROUGH C
- SCS Inspections - D THROUGH K
- SCS Inspections - L through R
- SCS Inspections - S through Z
- Collierville's Annual Inspection
- Germantown's Annual Inspections
- Family Sues SCS Over Playgrounds
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