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A Victory for Shared Use in West Virginia


The West Virginia State Legislature recently passed a bill, Shared Use Limited Liability Protection for Schools (SB 238), alleviating liability concerns from schools across the state. Often referred to as “shared use,” this legislation effectively removes liability when schools allow the general community or other organizations to use their playgrounds, gyms and other facilities.

Several local organizations including the American Heart Association, the West Virginia Department of Education, the West Virginia Education Association and the American Teachers Federation supported the passage of this legislation. The bill passed unanimously with support from all 134 legislators and during the session, several legislators commended the American Heart Association for bringing this bill through them. Ensuring equal access to safe places to play in Appalachia is a key strategy to increase physical activity and everyone involved is excited to see schools offering new opportunities to their community in the near future.

School districts can increase physical activity in children and young adults by opening playgrounds, gyms and fields to the community when school’s out, especially in lower-income areas, according to an American Heart Association policy statement published in the American Journal of Public Health last year. The statement recommends that school districts and community organizations create shared use agreements to allow supervised activities like sports leagues and unsupervised playing. It reported that low-income communities have less access to recreational spaces and community recreation centers.

Cities and towns throughout the United States have unique recreation resources that, though well known, are seldom used by local residents. Basketball courts, running tracks and grassy fields suitable for soccer, football or baseball often lie unused throughout the day and for months at a time, while community members long for opportunities and places to stay fit. These are the playgrounds, gymnasiums and practice fields of America’s schools, shuttered before and after school, on weekends and throughout the summer.

Health advocates in West Virginia decided they were going to unlock the gates to those facilities by tackling the primary hurdle to their use – concerns over legal liability if someone is hurt using school grounds – and were successful in securing passage of legislation that would provide greater liability protections for schools and extend liability protection for inside use, such as gymnasiums. Not surprisingly, the bill easily passed the legislature.

Other states are seeing similar trends. In spite of the success of their shared use work, health advocates in Arizona, who passed shared use legislation during the 2014 session, recognize that it is only one piece in the effort to untangle the obesity puzzle. That’s where technical assistance from Voices for Healthy Kids will come into play. Voices for Healthy Kids is a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Heart Association that provides strategic direction and tools for youth-focused, health-policy efforts such as Safe Routes to School, improved school nutrition and increased opportunities for physical activity. Those efforts will not only complement the shared use measure, they are central strategies the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed critical to reducing obesity and improving health among the American public.

Article authored by the American Heart Association.

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