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Raising Alarm at Cheerleading’s Dangers

It has been a year since Lauren Chang collapsed during a cheerleading competition and died, leaving behind her smiling portrait as a grim testament to the dangers of her sport.

That tragedy, as well as another death and a serious injury suffered by cheerleaders in recent years, has placed Massachusetts in a pivotal point in the crusade to make cheerleading safer.

Last fall, the mother of Ashley Burns, a Medford 14-year-old who died in a 2005 cheerleading accident, filed a lawsuit in her death. In addition to seeking damages, Ruth Burns is also asking a judge to force national groups that sanction cheerleading competitions and oversee the sport to adopt more stringent safety rules.

Those who advocate greater regulation of cheerleading say that as the activity has become more complex and dangerous in recent decades, safety standards have not evolved to protect young athletes. In their routines, cheerleaders can be tossed 10 to 20 feet into the air, bodies moving at high speeds.

A report released a few months after Chang died last April amplified the dangers of cheerleading. In the report, Dr. Robert C. Cantu, clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine and chairman of Emerson Hospital’s department of surgery, described cheerleading as the most dangerous sport in which high school and college-age women participate. Between 1982 and 2007, more than half of the serious injuries and deaths among the athletes were related to cheerleading, Cantu wrote in the report for the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research. Many of those who died or sustained serious injuries were fliers, the person thrown into the air during a maneuver.

What’s staggering, really, is that the single most dangerous activity in sports in schools is to be a flier in cheerleading,” Cantu said. “The chance for catastrophic injury is exponentially higher than for any other sports activity.”

Cantu said that the activity should be better regulated. The rules governing cheerleading practices and competitions vary significantly among the groups overseeing the athletes, which can include high schools, gyms, and cheerleading camps. For instance, Cantu said that cheerleading moves should always be performed over mats, but cheerleaders are often asked to perform on hardwood floors or running tracks. The safety rules of the US All Star Federation for Cheer & Dance Teams say only that athletes must practice and perform on “an appropriate surface.”

At the time of Chang’s fall last spring, the emergency medical technician on duty was away from the competition, restocking her supplies after earlier injuries.

Burns said that her daughter would still be alive if she had received medical care sooner. Instead, she said, after her daughter hit her stomach on another cheerleader’s shoulder and ruptured her spleen, coaches at Tewksbury’s East Elite Cheer Gym reacted by instructing her to stretch her hands over her head, and then sent her to the bathroom to splash cold water on her face.

The Medford freshman eventually passed out, and gym officials called 911, but it was too late. Burns said she raced to the hospital and saw a priest going into her daughter’s room. Soon after, she was told her daughter had died.

In her lawsuit, Burns states that the negligence of the gym, and the company holding the cheerleading lesson, are responsible for her daughter’s death.

Kozlowski said that her daughter was pressured into attempting a complicated move called a double down, in which teammates tossed her into the air so she could spin around twice before landing in their arms, a few days before a regional competition. Instead, Haley, 14, fell to the floor headfirst.

Kozlowski said that she had complained to school officials not long before her daughter’s accident that the cheerleaders were told to practice moves that they didn’t feel comfortable performing.

“It was a combination of everyone not being taught and there being pressure to succeed and perform,” she said.

Haley, who missed months of school, eventually learned to walk again. But she still suffers from pain, and her mother sees a more anxious child who struggles at school for the first time.

Lauren Chang was 20 years old and a Newton North High graduate when she took part in the Minuteman competition last spring at the DCU Center in Worcester MA. Chang and her teammates were midway through their routine when they performed a basket toss, sending another young woman into the air. When the teammate landed, she accidentally kicked Chang in the chest. Chang ran to the back of the mat and collapsed, and an autopsy showed she died after her lungs collapsed.

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