It's an Olympic sport that has brought Canada glory over the years, but now dozens of schools across Ontario are dropping it from gym class because administrators believe it's too dangerous.
The sport? High jump.
School boards around Sarnia, Muskoka and Haldimand recently put a moratorium on high jump, and the event has been removed from a county track meet in Dunnville next month. The Toronto District School Board and the Upper Canada District School Board outside Ottawa have tightened restrictions on high jumping, and the provincial organization that sets safety standards for school sports, the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association, or OPHEA, is expected to review its high jump guidelines this summer. Any changes by OPHEA would impact schools across Canada since the association's standards are used as a guide in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Prince Edward Island.
The moves are all in response to a tragic accident in Smith Falls, Ont., in April. Josiah Grant, 17, died after he landed awkwardly during high jump practice at Smiths Falls District Collegiate Institute. The accident is being investigated by the Ontario coroner's office.
The crackdown on high jumping has sparked a flurry of debate among students, parents, teachers and athletes.
"It's a disservice to kids," said high jumper Sarah Boyle, 25, of Toronto. Ms. Boyle, who has competed for Canada internationally, said she was introduced to the sport in Grade 5. She added that schools are just about the only place students will ever get exposed to this kind of event. "High jump has the potential to be dangerous, as does hockey, football, soccer, driving and crossing the street," she said. "Should we stop doing these things?"
Ms. Boyle noted that some of Canada's most renowned athletes have been high jumpers, including Greg Joy, who won a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics, and Debbie Brill, a former world record holder in the event.
Administrators insist they are acting in the best interests of students. "Our concern is safety," said Jim Costello, director of education at the Lambton Kent District School Board, which has 65 schools in the Sarnia and Chatham area. The district has banned high jump altogether at elementary schools and removed it from high school physical education classes. Mr. Costello said several principals in the district had already been concerned about high jump because of a growing number of injuries. The accident in Smith Falls confirmed the need for the ban, he said.
Peter Donnelly, a professor of physical education at the University of Toronto, called the decision by the boards "knee jerked." It's "the fear of insurance rates and insurance companies and also the fear of hyper-concerned parents who have heard of a death in this sport and who are panicking because of that," he said. "Child safety is becoming a moral panic issue."
Insurance does play a role. Most schools in Canada obtain liability insurance by joining together in pools to share risks and reduce costs. For example, nearly all Ontario boards are members of the Ontario School Boards' Insurance Exchange, a non-profit organization that provides insurance. The exchange helped develop OPHEA's safety standards, which rank high jump a "higher risk" sport along with hockey, football and rugby. Schools that don't follow OPHEA's recommended standards run the risk of being held negligent if a student is injured.
But Larry Hope, director of education at Trillium Lakelands District School Board in Muskoka, said that student safety and not potential insurance claims is what is driving the changes. His board has suspended high jump in gym classes until a committee has reviewed safety issues and ensured schools have the right equipment, including the proper number of mats."At the end of the day," he said, "we want to make sure that kids are protected and our staff are protected and doing the right things."