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School system removing swings

Aug. 30, 2010 @ 08:55 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Swing sets on elementary school playgrounds in Cabell County will soon become a thing of the past.

Cabell County Schools officials have decided to remove the traditional playground toys because of increasing safety standards and exposure to insurance claims and lawsuits stemming from swing set injuries.

The removal process began two weeks ago at Meadows Elementary and may not be completed until Christmas break, said Tim Stewart, safety manager for Cabell County Schools. 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 swing sets.

During the past five years, the school district's casualty insurance provider, the West Virginia Board of Risk and Insurance Management, has had to pay two liability claims totaling $1,513 because of swing set injuries, Stewart said.

But Cabell County Schools also has been sued twice in the past year for swing-related incidents. One of the suits was settled for $20,000 earlier this year, while the other remains in litigation.

"In this day and age, we have to do everything we can to keep kids safe," said Jedd Flowers of the school district. "We have to minimize our losses as well. Every time we receive a claim or get sued, we're using taxpayer dollars to pay for those settlements."

Tougher safety standards for playground equipment have made it difficult to defend those claims and lawsuits, Stewart said. Swing set safety standards adhere to "fall protection zones," which involve the type of ground material used around the swing set and the distance between the swing and the nearest piece of playground equipment.

Many of the county's elementary schools use mulch around their swing sets, although national safety standards now call for rubber-based surfaces, Stewart said. Those types of surfaces can cost at least $7,500 per swing set, he said.

"In talking with our lawyers about this issue, they told us we might as well pull out our checkbooks if we're going to continue using mulch around swing sets," Stewart said. "These types of lawsuits are apparently occurring around the country.

"It all boils down to liability. We can either remove the swing sets entirely or spend a fortune trying to meet national safety standards and stay protected from claims and lawsuits. Even then, there's no guarantee that we wouldn't face more litigation."

Children will be allowed to play on the swing sets until they are removed, Flowers said. One swing set at Altizer Elementary already has been roped off because it poses too many safety risks, Stewart said.

Each school will get to decide what it wants to do with its swing set, Stewart said. One school will donate its swing set to a church, he said.

The school district does not pay for playgrounds, so there are no plans for replacement equipment, Stewart said. Meadows Elementary, however, will get the playground equipment from the old Miller Elementary, he said.

The Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District also has been the target of lawsuits stemming from playground injuries. The park district's insurance costs have increased by about 300 percent during the past 10 years, said Jim McClelland, executive director of the park district. A large chunk of that increase can be attributed to rising liability insurance premiums, he said.

In 2006, the park district settled for more than $100,000 a lawsuit that was filed by the family of a small child who injured herself at the Ritter Park playground.

The park district has sought state legislation that would establish guidelines to better direct courts on whether a lawsuit against a park district should proceed. State law already grants a similar level of immunity to whitewater rafting companies and ski resorts.

The park district strives to meet national safety standards on all of its playgrounds, but it has no plans to remove swing sets, McClelland said.

"As a longtime parks director, the whole situation is ridiculous," he said. "It's a real injustice in this society whereby an agency feels that it has to take playground equipment away from children because of the fear of a lawsuit.

"I understand the position that the school board is in, but if you're going to remove swing sets, you might as well take down all of your playgrounds and forget about it. It's impossible to protect every single child from getting injured on a playground."

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