Playground swings, a source of comfort and joy for schoolchildren for generations, are getting the heave-ho at elementary schools in Cabell County.
The swing sets are being removed starting this fall due to recent lawsuits and cost concerns over properly maintaining the protective barriers around them, Cabell County schools safety manager Tim Stewart said Wednesday.
“I get a lot of mad parents basically accusing me of being un-American and saying this is as bad as taking away apple pie,” Stewart said.
Two lawsuits were filed in the past year against Cabell County schools over swing set injuries, one involving a broken arm when a youngster on a swing “jumped out like Superman with arms extended,” Stewart said. That lawsuit was settled for $20,000.
“No matter what they do (if) they get hurt in a jumping incident, we’re more than likely going to be liable for that incident,” Stewart said. “We have to make some type of change.”
Stewart said current recommendations call for a protective mulch layer twice the height of the swing in each direction in case someone were to jump off the swing. If one swing is 8 feet long, that’s 16 feet in front and 16 feet in back. And most playgrounds have more than one swing.
Cabell County tried to maintain up to 10 inches of bark mulch on the playgrounds, but that material easily breaks down or gets washed away and often has to be replaced to meet the depth required by national safety standards, Stewart said.
The alternative — upgrading the bark mulch around the playground’s equipment to rubber-based surfaces — was deemed far too expensive. Stewart estimates using the material would have cost up to $8,000 to surround 36 swing sets at 17 elementary schools.
“With the rubberized surface, that’s the only way I can assure I can meet the national playground safety standards,” Stewart said. “With the (bark) mulch it’s likely to be degraded at the bottom. Mulch is an acceptable fall protection. But do you have as much there as you think? I know I have it with the rubber.”
But the rubber mulch would have to be replaced every seven years and Stewart said that would have meant an investment of $576,000 over the next decade.
“So I started thinking, ’is this worth it?”’ Stewart said. “It’s all taxpayer dollars. As a safety person, one of my jobs is to determine the amount of risk and liability when it comes to activities and limit the cost. I see a high potential when it comes to swings and lawsuits.”
Other equipment such as monkey bars will remain on the playgrounds, even though Stewart said more injuries occur on monkey bars than swings. But Stewart said he’s able to maintain the proper protective barrier beneath monkey bars.
“We’re not going to prevent every accident,” he said. “I would love it if we could. That is not a realistic expectation. If you go that route, do you get rid of everything in the playground? Then they have nothing except grass.”
A countywide principals meeting is scheduled for next week and the equipment’s removal is expected to be among the topics.
“We’re living in a sue-happy society, which is sad that we’ve let it come down to affecting kids at this level with lawyers,” said Milton Elementary Principal Kim Cooper.
State Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said she was unaware of other counties removing swing sets, although individual schools occasionally remove old or deteriorating equipment.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said nearly 1.8 million injuries associated with playground equipment were treated by emergency rooms and other personnel across the country from 2001-08, the latest year available. About one-fourth of the injuries occurred at schools.
In Oklahoma, a 9-year-old girl died last month after falling off school playground equipment and hitting her head on the turf. The accident remains under investigation and occurred on equipment known as the X-Wave, which has plastic hinges and moves up and down.
Officials in at least six Oklahoma school districts have either already removed the structures or prohibited children from playing on them.