Evanston district, trainer part ways after dispute over concussion protocols

Uinta County School District No. 1 Athletics Director Bubba O’Neill looks into the crowd during a home volleyball match against Green River in 2020. The district’s former trainer, local physical therapist Mike Jacketta, says O’Neill has acted unprofessionally and his behavior could hurt Jacketta’s business which, in past years, has provided care for local student athletes for just $1 per year. (HERALD FILE PHOTO/Don Cogger)

EVANSTON — A disagreement between Uinta County School District No. 1 Activities Director Bubba O’Neill and local physical therapist Mike Jacketta concerning the district’s concussion policy and lack of an athletic trainer spilled out into the public eye last week in a series of emails exchanged among O’Neill, Jacketta and district staff.

Those emails, which were shared with the Herald, indicate this public incident began on Friday, Dec. 10, when Jacketta was contacted about a player injured during the Evanston Invitational wrestling tournament.

For nearly two decades, Jacketta has provided free individual medical services under contract for district athletes for an annual fee of $1. However, that contract expired in June of this year and was not renewed, as the district has been in discussions with several healthcare agencies regarding hiring a dedicated athletic trainer.

In a telephone conversation with the Herald, Jacketta indicated he received a phone call from O’Neill regarding the injured student athlete that Friday afternoon, at which time Jacketta said he advised O’Neill to have the athlete’s parents and coach contact him for assessment while also reminding O’Neill his contract had expired and expressing concerns about the district’s concussion policy. Jacketta said he had reminded the district his contract had expired on multiple occasions in preceding months and had also expressed his concerns about the concussion policy on multiple occasions.

Jacketta said he believes that O’Neill’s response to his concerns was inappropriate, unprofessional and possibly dangerous to students. Specifically, Jacketta said the injured student athlete was not referred to him for assessment and that, on the following Monday, O’Neill sent an email to district coaches and other staff advising them not to direct or refer students to Jacketta’s business, Wyoming Specialized Physical Therapy, for treatment.

In that email, a copy of which was provided to the Herald by Jacketta, O’Neill said Jacketta “will no longer be providing services of any kind including consultations to you ... [our] student athletes. He has made requests not to be bothered by phone calls or visits,” before going on to state Jacketta had made “this request very clear.” O’Neill then sent an email to Jacketta informing him staff had been directed to no longer seek his services.

For his part, Jacketta said he never indicated he was unwilling to work with student athletes and was only alerting O’Neill to what he believes are deficiencies in district policy and to the lack of a contract with his practice. He said he believes the email sent by O’Neill to district staff was damaging to his business that he has worked hard to build based on trust and a solid reputation of professionalism and was particularly uncalled for given his almost 20 years of providing no-cost services to local students.

“I tried to share my concerns about student health,” Jacketta said, “and he chose to attack my business and ability to make a living.”

When reached for comment, district superintendent Ryan Thomas said the injured athlete O’Neill had initially called Jacketta about had been evaluated at the high school by a medical provider within minutes of the injury. Thomas also provided the Herald with a copy of the district’s concussion policy, adopted in 2011, and said, “Concussions are tricky, and we do a great job protecting our student athletes. It goes without saying that some do not like the policy. The policy takes the decision-making away from the coach and parents and places it on the medical profession.”

Thomas also indicated the policy was modeled after policies throughout Wyoming districts following national concussion protocols and is very similar to that of other high schools in the state and nation.

The policy reads, in part, “A coach or athletic trainer shall immediately remove the student athlete from the school athletic event and shall not allow the athlete to continue participation in a school athletic event on the same day that the student athlete … exhibits physical or cognitive signs or symptoms consistent with a concussion or other head injury after a coach, athletic trainer, school official or student athlete reports, observes or suspects that the student athlete exhibiting these signs or symptoms has sustained a concussion or other head injury, and the signs and symptoms cannot be readily explained by a condition other than a concussion.”

The policy also states that if an athlete is removed from play for a suspected concussion or head injury the coach or athletic trainer “shall make reasonable efforts to notify the athlete’s parent or legal guardian” and that the student athlete shall not be permitted to return to participation until “the student athlete has been evaluated by a health care provider and receives written clearance from the health care provider to return to participation.”

Jacketta, however, said that, in his professional opinion, “The current so-called policy is really an outline of how to write a policy.” He said it lacks specifics on assessments that must be conducted to determine if an athlete can return to practice and/or play and does not reference a neuro-cognitive impact test, which should be conducted for every student athlete at the beginning of the year to establish a baseline and then utilized as only one piece of a comprehensive assessment following an injury. In addition, he said the policy doesn’t require that the health care provider doing the assessment be certified and trained in assessing student athletes in contact sports.

“They need comprehensive concussion management,” said Jacketta. “but instead they’ve chosen to have this vague and unenforceable policy that endangers kids and is a liability issue.” Jacketta said he believes the policy is so inadequate that “they’re lucky somebody hasn’t been killed.” Specifically, Jacketta said the policy lacks a clear chain of command in terms of decision making and lacks clear benchmarks to assess player health.

As has been reported in the Herald over the past several months, there have been several presentations made by healthcare agencies at school board meetings with proposals for securing a dedicated athletic trainer for the district, which is the only 4A school district in the state without one. Thomas said due to the interest expressed by multiple groups the district had “decided to wait until the spring to request an RFP (request for proposals) from providers and try again procuring a trainer. The state of Wyoming does not require that school districts have trainers and every coach is required to be certified in care and prevention of athletic injury. When a student athlete is injured in competition or practice they are provided with a high level of care and encouraged to seek medical attention.”

Jacketta said he will continue to evaluate student athletes at his practice as he has done throughout this school year, even without the $1 contract, and that he has taken phone calls from district staff on multiple occasions in recent months when they have had student injury questions and concerns. However, he said the actions, or inactions, taken by the district and O’Neill specifically are concerning.

He said he understands numerous providers have presented proposals for hiring a dedicated athletic trainer and that the district has opted to wait until the spring to issue an RFP; however, he said that doesn’t explain why they opted not to renew the $1 contract with his practice that has been in place for years and have nothing in its place. “They were given the choice to spend $1. They would have had to spend the equivalent of a single 50/50 raffle ticket for coverage. But instead they chose to do nothing.”

Both Jacketta and Thomas were reached for contact regarding this situation last week. After another phone conversation with Jacketta on Wednesday, Dec. 22, follow-up questions were sent to Thomas and O’Neill. However, no response had been received as of press time.

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