For much the same reason that some doctors have found the practice of medicine too costly, high school districts in Southern California soon may be forced to abolish competitive sports and phys ed programs—even though the latter are required by state law.
The soaring cost of liability insurance, which in some cases has risen 400% over a two-year period, is to blame—the end result of insurance companies' preference for insuring activities that pose little risk and the frequency of personal injury suits filed against school districts.
In the Los Angeles area insurance rates already have forced some school districts to drop phys ed classes in skiing, surfing and scuba diving. If these sports seem expendable to some educators, the L.A. schools also felt obliged to eliminate trampoline, an essential aid in gymnastics, when the premium on each trampoline in use rose to $11,000. Escalating premiums also imperil long-distance running and cycling, and many school administrators feel the entire interscholastic sports program will have to be abolished if school districts are unable to get insurance at reasonable rates.
"It's the attitude of people who want to sue somebody because someone gets a slight injury," says James Crockett, an assistant superintendent for the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, in explaining the causes. "They expect to be compensated two or three times or more what the damage might be. If we don't have liability insurance, there is no way we can operate an athletic program. It is not uncommon to have a suit filed against the district for half a million dollars, and it goes up from there."
"We've been hit for everything," says Don Eshelman, an assistant superintendent for business affairs in the Inglewood district. "If someone suffers a hangnail, a suit is filed—and the courts make a very liberal award. It's really getting dangerous to our educational system."
Even in the absence of personal injury suits, and even when the carrier has made money from the policy, insurance companies have canceled their coverage with school districts, or raised rates precipitously.
"Insurance people are ratchet people," says Hugh Cameron, business manager of the South Bay Union District of Redondo Beach. "Any question you ask them is answered, 'It will cost you more.' There is nothing that will cost you less.
"I can foresee the day, if things continue, when there won't be any phys ed or sports. Not only that, but all kinds of activities beyond sports are in danger. The carriers now ask, 'Do you have a forge in your industrial arts department?' We do. They don't ask questions without reason. What they are going to do is increase the cost. We don't have enough money to run the school district now, and since we can't pay for the increased costs, the kids are going to suffer."
GOING THE DISTANCE
Filling out a questionnaire for next week's National AAU track and field championships, Olympic distance runner Duncan MacDonald listed his hobby as "Taking apart my Volkswagen." Asked to list his ambition, MacDonald wrote, "Being able to put my Volkswagen back together."