Risk Management Plans: Existence and Enforcement at NIAAA Member High School Athletic Departments

Abstract

The purpose of this study was to explore the current scenario of interscholastic athletics in terms of the existence and enforcement of risk management plans within high school athletic departments. Another purpose was to identify the common practices related to risk management currently utilized. The present study had a response rate of 16.7%. The results showed that 76.2 % of the respondents (N=816) conduct interscholastic activities with the support of risk management plans, but there are still 23.8% of those interscholastic athletic departments where risk management plans are nonexistent. In addition, from those who indicated having a risk management plan, 28% do not enforce it. A majority of respondents seem to be employing risk management best practices consistently, but there is an indication of a less than desired level of adoption of some practices (i.e., informed consent forms, pre-season sport specific meetings, ADA compliance, coach evaluation and written criteria, safety training, accessibility of AED’s, and warning signs). The results of our study showed a statistically significant relationship between the athletic directors’ years of experience and the adoption of certain risk management practices (i.e. coach evaluation, evaluation criteria, risk management enforcement, and hazard abatement), but (surprisingly) not to the adoption of other similarly important practices. This study provides high school athletic administrators and principals with relevant information that can be used to support their decision to adopt and enforce risk management plans for interscholastic athletic activities.

Key words: Risk Management Practices, Risk Management Plan, Interscholastic Athletics, Athletic Directors.

Introduction

In college athletics, risk management plans exist in order to reduce medical costs, prevent liability and to help schools afford insurance (Anderson, 2006). What about high school? Today, suing the schools, their coaches and officials for any reason is very common. Thus, high schools have to be prepared to defend themselves against legal claims, especially those related to interscholastic sports. Millions of teenagers participate in organized school-sponsored interscholastic sports programs each year. Competitive sports are an integral part of the lives of high school students and have the potential to offer them many benefits. Increased participation and rapid body changes make the risk of injuries for high school students engaging in interscholastic athletics a real threat (Ballard, 1996). In addition to the well-known mental, physical, economic, and spectator benefits provided by high school sports, the possible costs or hazards of interscholastic athletic participation are always present (Lipsey, 2006). Supporting that idea, an epidemiologic study commissioned by the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System showed that 55.5% of American high school students participated on at least one sports team, and 21.9% of those students reported seeking medical treatment as a result of their activities (Eaton, Kann, Kinchen, et al., 2007). These data justify the need for increased efforts in developing and implementing strategies to identify and treat potential risks related to interscholastic participation. With that in mind, it is important for interscholastic athletic administrators to become familiar with commonly utilized best practices related to risk management in high school sports.

Gray (1995) studied risk management at physical education and athletic programs at the high school level in the state of Iowa. He investigated high school principals’ perceptions of a 20 item list of best practices related to risk management and principals’ supervision of programs. The author found that these administrators perform most of the risk management behaviors within the survey in a consistent basis. He also found that the size of the school had little influence on the behavior among the surveyed principals.

A similar study conducted by Bezdicek (2009), examined 463 high school athletic directors in Minnesota. The study was conducted to determine to what extent do athletic directors develop, implement, and manage a risk management plan for their athletic department, and the levels of familiarity that athletic directors have with risk management standards. The study revealed that the majority (56%) of athletic directors in Minnesota did not have a written risk management plan. In addition, the reasons for not having a risk management plan, as expressed by the respondents, were: lack of time (26.3%), lack of expertise (20.8%), and no need for a plan (19.7%).

Mulrooney and Green (1997) determined that the following characteristics must be present for a risk management plan to be considered bonafide and functioning: (1) a staff member is the risk manager, (2) a written risk management plan should outline policies and procedures in detail (including audit checklists), (3) periodic risk audits are conducted by staff, (4) periodic staff training programs related to risk management should be in place, and (5) the risk management plan is created with legal counsel.

Doleschal (2006) points out that: “ongoing risk management programs, the preparation of written material to be disseminated to coaches, participants, and parents or guardians, signed informed consent forms, inspection of equipment, etc., are examples of proactive steps that can be taken by school districts and their athletic programs” (p.295). He argues that unfortunately “many schools either do not have/use a risk management plan or do not follow good risk management practices” (p. 295). To assist interscholastic athletic departments in developing efficient risk management plans, Doleschal (2006) recommends 14 duties of care (proper planning, proper supervision, eligibility assessment, safe playing conditions, equipment maintenance, proper instruction, proper matching of athletes, proper conditioning, risk warning, proper insurance, emergency care and response plan, safe transportation, and proper selection, training and supervision of coaches) which schools should incorporate in their plans as preventive steps to minimize possible liability for the school or coaches.

Due to the nature of interscholastic athletic activities, coaches and schools constantly deal with the risk of litigation. Thus, it is important that they understand following the steps laid out in a risk management plan is instrumental to minimizing risks and reducing loss. The choice of either not having or not enforcing a risk management plan puts schools and their staff at risk of experiencing the anguish and pain involved in the time consuming process of defending a lawsuit (Doleschal, 2006). A good risk management plan is not an absolute guarantee that litigation will be avoided. However, good risk management practices can be effective aids in developing not only safer programs, but also act as an effective defense, should litigation occur (Doleschal, 2006).

With a good risk management plan in place, the identification and treatment of risks becomes much more effective. According to Stier et al. (2008), “risk management implies the assessment of risks associated with one or more activities or events and planning for the worst-case scenario”. (p. 32). Cotton (1993) points out that there are four essential elements to any risk management plan: identification of real and potential risks, assessment of the identified risks in terms of their causes, determination of appropriate courses of action to take in dealing with these risks if they occur, and establishment of effective and efficient risk prevention measures.

Finally, it is important to emphasize the athletic administrators’ role in the implementation and management of a risk management plan. A significant number of lawsuits are negligence claims taking place after the accident and the initial injury of an individual. Thus, the administrators’ ultimate goals must be to provide the safest environment possible for everyone involved, and to be prepared to deal with accidents and injuries if and when they do occur (Stier et al, 2008). Despite the fact that “no plan can be completely effective in preventing all injuries or accidents” (p.32), administrators are still responsible for enforcing and maintaining a meaningful risk management plan (Stier et al, 2008).

For high school athletic administrators, the challenge becomes providing sport programs which take safety seriously. In other words, the task is to effectively manage the many risks to which students-athletes are exposed. To do so, schools should rely on risk management plans and best practices to ensure that all school employees involved with athletics are fully prepared to prevent losses and to deal with losses when they occur (Appenzeller, 2005). However, is that really the case? Do high schools across the country actually have a risk management plan and truly enforce it? What are the most common practices related to risk management currently utilized by athletic departments at the high school level?

The purpose of this study was to explore the current scenario of interscholastic athletics in terms of the existence and enforcement of risk management plans within high school athletic departments. Another purpose was to identify the common practices related to risk management currently utilized. This study provides high school athletic administrators and principals with relevant information that can be used to support their decision to adopt and enforce risk management plans applied to interscholastic athletic activities.

To achieve such purposes, the following questions must be answered:

  1. How frequently high schools have and enforce risk management plans which are tailored to their athletic programs?
  2. What are the best practices used by high school athletic departments to address the inherent risks to the athletic activities they provide?
  3. Is there any relationship between athletic directors’ years of experience and existence/enforcement of specific risk management plan practices?

Methods

An online survey instrument was developed and distributed to high school athletic administrators for the purposes of examining risk management practices for high school athletics.

Subjects

The subjects were high school athletic directors belonging to the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA). The NIAAA granted permission to the researchers to conduct the study. At the time of the survey, the NIAAA membership totaled 5,758 (while there were few email delivery failures, the amount was negligible). The first page of the online survey presented the participants information about the study and an informed consent form. Continuing to take the survey served as the respondents’ consent. The survey was available to the participants for six consecutive weeks, starting late Fall 2010.

Instrument

The survey instrument consisted of twenty-four questions related to risk management policy and practices as well as eight demographic questions. Questions were broken down into three categories: policy and procedure, supervision and personnel evaluation, and safety. The policy and procedure category consisted of questions related to Title IX, athletic association rules, insurance, informed consent, preseason meetings and ADA compliance. The supervision and personnel evaluation category consisted of questions related to coach certification and evaluation, supervision of events, and policy enforcement. Lastly, the safety category focused on emergency training, equipment and procedures, hazard inspection, game equipment, venue signage, and security and team transportation. The questions were a combination of Likert-type and open-ended. Directions for the survey were imbedded within the survey itself. Directions were placed for each section and coincided with any question format changes. Content for the questions was developed using previous literature related to risk management policies and procedures. Content validity was established using a panel of individuals chosen for their expertise and experience in risk management policy and procedures. The instrument was also tested for issues of readability using student focus groups.

Data Collection and Analysis

Using a modified Dillman (2007) method, the final version of the survey was sent to the NIAAA membership which totaled 5,758 at the time of the survey. The instrument was sent by email with a letter explaining the purpose of the study and informing them that participation was voluntary. Participants were assured of their anonymity as respondents, and also were given electronically generated respondent ID numbers by the survey program. There were 5,758 surveys sent out with 962 surveys returned for a 16 .7% response rate. Of the 962 surveys returned there were 816 fully completed and useable surveys. The researchers agree that 16% response rate seems low. However, it is important to point out that this is an exploratory study reaching out to a very large population. The group of respondents represents diverse geographic regions and a variety of school sizes. In addition, the complex and high-demand nature of the job performed by those athletic directors is a very reasonable justification for their low response rate.

Descriptive analysis was used to explore demographic information related to the administrators, and the frequency of legal action related to injuries and adoption of risk management best practices. Chi-square tests were performed to investigate the existence of relationships between the risk management practices and administrators experience.

Results

The athletic administrators surveyed represented schools ranging in size from 41 students to over 8,000. The mean enrollment of schools represented in the survey was 1,182. These schools fielded an average of 18 different athletic programs.

The administrators themselves were a majority male (83.9%). From all responding administrators, 2.6% held a doctorate, 74.6% held a master’s degree, 18.2 % held a bachelor degree, and 2 % represented other levels of education (associate or high school degree). These administrators had an average of 11.7 years of total experience with an average of 8.0 years being employed at their current school.

Policy Provision and Injury

In terms of injuries and risk, these schools have seen very little legal action related to injury (less than 1%), with (on average) three catastrophic injuries over the last five years requiring hospitalization. In light of this finding it is important to note that during this time, approximately one quarter of the sample either did not have a risk management policy (17.3%) or didn’t know if one existed at their school (6.5%). Of the schools possessing a risk management policy, 28 % said the policies were not enforced.

Risk Management Practices

To examine risk management practices, a series of questions were asked related to standard practices involving risk minimization for athletic program participation. In all categories (policy and procedure, supervision and personnel evaluation, and safety) 78% or more of respondents answered that they engaged in the practice often or always, with the exception of the item inquiring about the presence of visible risk warning signs at venues (46.9%) (Table 1). In the policy and procedure category, 10.5% of the respondents rarely, if ever, required consent forms for athletic participation. Also, only 86.4% conducted sport-specific pre-season meetings for athletes and parents. Lastly, 11.3% indicated that ADA guidelines were seldom met.

Within the supervision and personnel evaluation category, the results showed that less than 83% of the respondents evaluate their coaches on a regular basis. To compound this issue, only 85% had written criteria with which to evaluate those coaches. In addition, only 81.9% respondents indicated that their athletic department had someone responsible for enforcing the risk management plan.

The safety category results presented the largest concerns: 20.6% of the respondents indicated that emergency safety training is not provided to coaches and staff on a regular basis, and only 78.6% have AEDs within easy access at athletic activities. Having proper signage at sport venues with visible risk warning signs was also lacking, with less than half (46.9%) of administrators indicating adequate signage.

Risk Management Practices and Administrators’ Experience

A series of chi-square tests were performed to look at relationships between the risk management practices and administrators’ experience (Table 2). For the purposes of this analysis, administrators were categorized into two groups: those with fewer than eleven years of experience and those with eleven or more years. Significant associations were found between experience and the risk management practice variables of coach evaluation, evaluation criteria, risk management enforcement, and hazard abatement.

There was a significant (χ2 (1) = 12.75, p<.001) albeit weak (Phi = .126, p<.001) association between the level of administrator experience and whether the coaches were evaluated on a regular basis. Based on the odds ratio, the odds of administrators with 11 or more years of experience evaluating coaches on a regular basis was twice that of administrators with ten years or less experience.

The association between level of administrator experience and written evaluation criteria was also significant (χ2 (1) = 5.37, p<.05) and weak (Phi = .08, p<.05). The calculation of the odds ratio indicated the odds of administrators with 11 or more years of experience having written evaluation criteria were 1.6 times that of administrators with ten years or less experience.

Administrator experience and whether the athletic department had someone responsible for enforcing a risk management plan showed a significant (χ2 (1) = 5.30, p<.05) and weak (Phi = .08, p<.05) association. The odds ratio indicated the odds of administrators with 11 or more years of experience having a dedicated person responsible for risk management plan enforcement was 1.5 that of administrators with ten years or less experience.

Lastly, there was a significant (χ2 (1) = 5.15, p<.05) and weak (Phi = .08, p<.05) association between the level of administrator experience and whether identified hazards were repaired correctly and timely. Based on the odds ratio, the odds of administrators with 11 or more years of experience repairing hazards timely and correctly was twice that of administrators with ten years or less experience.

Discussion

The first goal of this study was to determine the frequency with which high schools in America have and enforce risk management plans applied to their athletic programs. Regarding the existence of a risk management plan, the results showed that 23.8% of the respondents either did not have a risk management policy or didn’t know if one existed at their school. In addition, among the schools possessing a risk management plan, 28 % said the plan policies were not enforced.

These figures are unexpected and very concerning. The concern is based on interscholastic athletic stakeholders’ expectation that schools and programs to be fully committed to the safety of athletes and fans, through the presence and enforcement of a solid risk management plan as the utmost symbol of that commitment. As such, it would be only reasonable to expect a much higher percentage of existence and enforcement of risk management plans. However, despite the increase in participation and the litigious character of our society, it seems that a significant number of interscholastic athletic administrators (or, in some cases, the local school board) choose to put their students and their schools at constant risk of major loss and liability (Bezdicek, 2009; Eaton et al., 2007; Gray, 1995; Lipsey, 2006; Stier et al, 2008). It is also surprising that, despite so many interscholastic athletic departments reporting absence of either a risk management plan or the enforcement of one, less than 1% of the respondents had legal action related to injury requiring hospitalization over the last five years. Perhaps, this could be a possible explanation for the less than desired level of adoption and enforcement of risk management plans among the respondents.

The administrators who have and enforce risk management plans will continue to reap the benefits of loss prevention and reduction (Bezdicek, 2009; Eaton et al., 2007; Gray, 1995; Lipsey, 2006; Stier et al, 2008). The same cannot be said for to the administrators who either do not have or do not enforce risk management plans. One can only hope that, by becoming acquainted with the information provided here, they may adopt practices that will certainly lead them to risk and liability reduction (Appenzeller, 2005; Bezdicek; Cotton & Wolohan, 2007; Eaton et al.; Gray; Lipsey; Stier et al).

The second goal of this study was to identify the best and most frequently used practices to address the inherent risks to interscholastic athletic activities. As expected, the survey results showed that most administrators followed these standards of risk management the vast majority of the time. However, the results presented a few points of concern, which could be another possible explanation for the low percentage of schools with risk management plans.

Initially, the fact that 10.5% of the respondents rarely required informed consent forms may place these schools in a defenseless position if facing negligence claims related to injuries occurring during participation in schools’ interscholastic activities (Appenzeller, 2005; Cotton, 1993; Doleschal, 2006). Dealing with the same liability category, 13.6% do not conduct sport specific pre-season meetings for athletes and parents. According to Doleschal (2006), “parents/guardians and athletes have a right to information regarding the possibility of injury, paralysis, and death that is inherent in all sports” (p.318).The provision of such information is a duty the institutions legally owe to the families. The lack of signed informed consent and sport specific pre-season meetings prevent participants (and their families) from being fully educated on the risks involved in the specific sport in which they desire to participate, and make the defense against a negligence claim very difficult (Appenzeller; Cotton & Wolohan, 2007; Doleschal).

ADA compliance at interscholastic venues is also an issue. 11.3% of the respondents indicated that ADA guidelines were seldom met. This lack of compliance not only prevents the access and participation of people with disabilities at those venues, but also provides strong legal claims to those affected by such lack of compliance to the law (Appenzeller, 2005; Cotton & Wolohan, 2007). One can only hope that such lack of compliance is due to the fact that those venues were built before ADA legislation was enacted (Appenzeller, 2005; Cotton & Wolohan, 2007). Despite being able to receive tax breaks for making the necessary corrections to be compliant with the law (Appenzeller; Cotton & Wolohan, 2007), it appears that the schools choose to hide behind the age of their venues rather than to take action and become compliant with the law.

Other concerning issues identified were the lack of written criteria with which to evaluate coaches (17.2%) and actual evaluation of those educators (15%). Combined, these two issues expose high schools to potential negligence and contract liability (Appenzeller, 2005; Cotton & Wolohan, 2007; Doleschal, 2006). On one hand, coaches’ various negligent actions may cause major injury and loss to all stakeholders. Such losses can be prevented if coaches’ evaluation and training are truly executed and based on written criteria (Doleschal, 2006). On another hand, the lack of written coaches’ evaluation criteria and an evaluation process following such standards may also place schools in violation of contract laws, specifically when coaches’ have to be disciplined or terminated (Appenzeller, 2005; Cotton & Wolohan, 2007; Doleschal, 2006).

Safety training, AED accessibility, and warning signs were also identified as concerning issues. Lack of safety training for coaches and staff on a regular basis (20.6% of the respondents) may expose students and spectators to a wide range of risks of injury and loss (ranging from failure to warn and equipment malfunction, to poor response to catastrophic injuries) that could be easily prevented with appropriate training (Doleschal, 2006). The absence of easily accessible AED equipment (reported by 21.4% of the respondents) adds to the major liability claims that certainly will come as a consequence of poor response to catastrophic injuries (Appenzeller, 2005). Lack of proper signage (reported by more than 50% of the respondents) may also expose students and fans to unnecessary risks and generate costly lawsuits against the schools. It is the schools’ duty to warn spectators and participants of potential risks involved in the activity through all means possible (i.e., verbal warnings, signage, and public announcement system) (Blumenthal, 2009; Girvan & Girvan, 1993; Lee, Farley & Kwon, 2010). Under any of these circumstances above, schools may be held liable.

The third goal of this study was to identify if there is any relationship between athletic directors’ experience and existence/enforcement of risk management plan practices. No significant relationship was found between experience and the existence of risk management plans. Such a result was expected, considering that the existence of a risk management is too important in preventing injury and loss at any institution to depend on the athletic director’s experience (Appenzeller, 2005; Cotton & Wolohan, 2007; Doleschal, 2006). However, significant associations were found between experience and the adoption of risk management practice variables. More experienced administrators (11 or more years) had higher odds of conducting coach evaluations, having evaluation criteria, risk management enforcement, and hazard abatement among their adopted risk management practices than administrators with less experience. The existence of such associations is not surprising. It is reasonable to expect that the experiences acquired through years on the job would lead administrators to the adoption of these best practices.

The use of written evaluation criteria and coaches’ evaluations may be a result of years of experience dealing with (either by themselves or by learning from others’ struggles) injuries, property loss, and financial loss suffered due to the lack of written evaluation criteria, and coaches’ evaluations. The existence of an enforced risk management plan and timely hazard abatement seem to be related to experience as well. By assigning the enforcement of the plan to a staff member, the administrator not only promotes injury and loss reduction, but also ensures that the plan is updated as venues and policies related to the athletic department change (Appenzeller, 2005). Regarding hazard abatement, experienced administrators know their facilities very well, including their maintenance history. Such knowledge should allow those administrators to treat hazards even before they appear, contingent to budget availability (Appenzeller, 2005).

As mentioned above, the fact that significant associations were found between experience and four of the risk management practice variables (coach evaluation, evaluation criteria, risk management enforcement, and hazard abatement) is not surprising. Intriguing is the fact that the other risk management practices did not present a similar relationship. One possible explanation is perhaps experience is less of a factor in adopting the practices that did not show a significant relationship. Another possible explanation is less experienced administrators may feel either uncomfortable or unprepared to conduct coaches’ evaluations, develop evaluation criteria, enforce a risk management, and/or deal with hazard abatement.

Recommendations for Future Research

The results of this study revealed that a significant percentage of high school athletic departments surveyed either do not have or do not enforce a risk management plan. It would be interesting to conduct a qualitative study among various state high school associations to learn their perspective on the situation and their perceived reasons for such lack of risk management plan existence and enforcement. To complement the study, athletic directors could be surveyed on their perceptions of the reasons suggested by the state high school associations’ leadership. After comparing the results from both groups, a list of potential actions to help increase risk management development, implementation and enforcement could be composed.

Conclusions

The present study demonstrated that interscholastic activities could be conducted with the support of risk management plans in a larger number of high schools. There is a significant amount of interscholastic athletic departments where risk management plans are either nonexistent or unenforced. A large majority of respondents seem to be employing risk management best practices consistently, but there is an indication of a less than desired level of adoption of some practices (i.e., informed consent forms, pre-season sport specific meetings, ADA compliance, coach evaluation and written criteria, safety training, AED’s accessibility, and warning signs). It also appears that the athletic directors’ years of experience plays a role in the adoption of certain risk management practices (coach evaluation, evaluation criteria, risk management enforcement, and hazard abatement), but (surprisingly) not to the adoption of other similarly important practices. It is the researchers’ hope that the evidence presented here opens the athletic directors’ minds to the importance of the adoption of a risk management plan as possibly the only reliable way to minimize loss to athletes, spectators, and institutions.

Applications in Sport

The results presented in this study are valuable to those in leadership positions at any high school in the United States. High school principals and athletic directors armed with this information would be able to (1) adopt and enforce a risk management plan, if they do not have/enforce one; and (2) review their policies and practices related to risk management and adjust them to industry standards. Other benefits to institutional leaders include the ability to provide athletes and spectators with a safer experience, and to reduce the risk of athletes’ injuries. These benefits will consequently help minimizing legal claims against high schools and their officials.

Tables with Captions

Table 1

Percent of Administrators Engaging in Risk Management Practices on a Regular Basis

Category Practice Percentage
Policy and Procedure Title IX Requirements are met 95.70%
State HS Athletic Assoc. rules are followed 99.00%
Athletic Activities are fully covered 93.30%
Participants sign sport-specific consents 89.50%
ADA requirements are met at venues 88.70%
Pre-season sport-specific meetings with parents 86.40%
Supervision and Evaluation Evaluate coaches on regular basis 82.80%
Written evaluation criteria to evaluate coaches 85.00%
AD attends home athletic contests 96.80%
Coaches are certified/qualified in sport they coach 91.10%
Dedicated person responsible for risk plan enforcement 81.90%
Safety Medical emergency procedures exist 97.50%
Emergency safety training provided to coaches and staff 79.60%
AEDs are easily accessible at athletic events 78.60%
Identified hazards are repaired properly and timely 93.80%
Adequate equipment is provided for athletic activities 98.60%
Venues and equipment are inspected regularly 93.50%
Adequate game security is provided 93.90%
Safe transportation is provided for away contests 97.00%
Venues have visible risk warning signs 46.90%

Table 2

Chi-square analysis of Administrator Experience (>11 years vs. 11 or more years) and Risk Management Practices

Category Practice χ2 value p value
Policy and Procedure Title IX Requirements are met .199 .726
State HS Athletic Assoc. rules are followed 2.905 .088
Athletic Activities are fully covered 1.008 .315
Participants sign sport-specific consents 2.216 .137
ADA requirements are met at venues .956 .328
Pre-season sport-specific meetings with parents 2.733 .098
Supervision and Evaluation Evaluate coaches on regular basis 12.75 <.001*
Written evaluation criteria to evaluate coaches 5.37 <.05*
AD attends home athletic contests .139 .710
Athletic activities are supervised .034 .854
Coaches are certified/qualified in sport they coach .001 .970
Dedicated person responsible for plan enforcement 5.30 <.05*
Safety Medical emergency procedures exist 3.116 .078
Emergency safety training provided 2.430 .119
AEDs are easily accessible at athletic events .011 .916
Identified hazards are repaired properly and timely 5.15 <.05*
Adequate equipment is provided for activities 1.619 .203
Venues and equipment are inspected regularly 2.261 .133
Adequate game security is provided 1.908 .167
Safe transportation is provided for away contests .485 .133
Venues have visible risk warning signs .203 .652

* Significant relationship

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Corresponding Author

Mauro Palmero Ph.D.
Sport Management Graduate Coordinator
East Tennessee State University
Department of Kinesiology Leisure and Sport Sciences
P.O. Box 70654
Johnson City, TN 37614
palmero@etsu.edu
423-439-4382

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