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Proposal in the House prioritizes safety of student-athletes

The death of Middleton High’s Hezekiah B. Walters during summer conditioning helps spark a bill that seeks better protection for players at practices and games.

A proposal to ensure more safety measures are in place for student-athletes who compete in games and conditioning drills has surfaced in the Legislature. The death of incoming Middleton freshman Hezekiah B. Walters during conditioning drills this past summer played a role in state representatives wanting better protection for those who play high school sports, but it was not the sole reason.

“The situation at Middleton certainly stimulated the conversation, but there were more overlying issues, especially with the summers being warm and the temperatures rapidly rising,” said Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, who chairs the House PreK-12 Innovation Subcommittee, which meets today at 4 p.m. to discuss the bill.

Massullo sponsored a bill that would make amendments to Florida Statute 1006.165, which requires Florida High School Athletic Association member schools to have an automated external defibrillator on campus and ensure that employees who would reasonably use the device are properly trained.

Related: Middleton player’s death highlights area’s need for more athletic trainers

The amended item would make it mandatory for a defibrillator to be clearly marked and available for all games, practices, workouts and conditioning sessions, including those conducted in the summer when school is not in session. A school employee or volunteer trained to use the device must be present at every athletic activity.

In addition, the amended bill would require guidelines for heat prevention, including when to make cooling zones or cold-water immersion tubs available based on heat index levels and establishing hydration protocols.

In June, Walters collapsed during conditioning drills in almost 90-degree heat. The 14-year-old died from exertional hyperthermia — core body temperature usually above 104 degrees that often accompanies heat stroke and impacts the central nervous system — according to the autopsy report released by the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner Department in October.

His death drew more awareness to heat-related issues at high school games and practices and prompted action at the local level.

In August, Hillsborough County spent $270,000 to hire certified athletic trainers for its high schools, something superintendent Jeff Eakins requested in the aftermath of Walters’ death.

Besides trainers, the Walters family also wanted to see more safety protocols put in place, and all coaches in attendance at every practice and game.

The House Innovation Pre-K-12 Subcommittee had three workshops this fall to discuss health-related issues during athletic contests.

“The bill is pretty straightforward,” Massullo said. “We want to save lives. Making suggestions is not enough.”

Contact Bob Putnam at Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.