HARRISON — "Be careful."
The concern is evident in the voice of Tiffany Campbell as she watches her 5-year old son, Alexander, move tentatively through the steel bars of an old piece of playground equipment at Crosby Elementary in Harrison.
"Good job. Do it again," she tells Alexander, who is focused like a laser on the blue and yellow bars that appear to have lost much of their paint over the years.
The climbing station has a small ring of bark around it, but it only covers the surface of the hard ground immediately around the equipment.
Campbell told the WCPO I-Team Alexander accidentally flipped off the same equipment in August and landed hard on the ground just beyond the mulch.
"He busted his lip wide open and had to get five stitches. It was terrifying," Campbell remembered last month as she stood next to Alexander on the Crosby Elementary playground.
Hamilton County Health Department inspectors cited the school for non-critical violations in three consecutive inspections since April 2018 for not having the required 6 feet of softer material around playground equipment.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has cited numerous studies showing that softer landing material reduces the risk of more serious injuries.
In its 2015 Public Playground Safety Handbook, the CPSC states that "it is estimated that there were more than 200,000 injuries annually on public playgrounds across the country that required emergency room treatment."
It's unclear how many of those injuries occur on school playgrounds.
The WCPO I-Team has spent the last two months visiting school playgrounds and examining inspection reports for local schools. We interviewed national playground experts, local school officials and parents. Our goal is to determine the condition of local school playgrounds and share information that can help us provide safer conditions for children.
The I-Team reviewed health department inspection reports for approximately 200 public and private elementary school playgrounds in six Cincinnati-area counties. Hamilton and Butler counties in Ohio, and Campbell, Kenton, Boone and Grant counties in Kentucky.
WCPO examined the most recent inspection reports for each school.
The inspection reports examined by WCPO show one out of four of those school playgrounds received violations this year. None of those violations were considered "critical", which indicates an immediate danger.
The inspection reports show "repeat" playground violations are extremely rare.
"Playgrounds are really very safe," playground expert Teri Hendry told the I-Team during a recent telephone interview.
Hendry, the president and owner of Cincinnati-based Site Masters, Inc., has been a consultant on playground design and safety issues for more than 20 years.
"But, there's no such thing as a perfect playground," Hendry said.
Tiffany Campbell believes softer material under and surrounding the Crosby Elementary playground equipment would have cushioned Alexander's fall.
"It's pretty insane that I let him play on it, honestly," she said.
When the I-Team visited Crosby Elementary in August we also found a tether ball pole sticking out of an exposed hunk of concrete - a violation identified by an inspector in April 2018. And, we discovered bent up barbed wire at the bottom of a fence next to the playground.
Crosby is one of four elementary schools in the Southwest Local School District. Superintendent John Hamstra told WCPO he wasn't happy with the conditions we found on the Crosby Elementary School playground.
He made no excuses.
"Could things improve? For Sure. What holds us back? A lot of times it's time. And money. And effort," Hamstra told WCPO during an interview. "Could more be done. Sure. And, that's something we're working on as a team."
Grant County School District - Crittenden-Mt. Zion Elementary
"You wouldn't want kids on it," said Mt. Zion Principal Nancy Livingood when she described the closed playground at her school.
The school's playground was two decades old and "had been repaired numerous times," Livingood told WCPO on Monday during a telephone interview after classes ended for the day.
Livingood said the bridge on the playground "had completely collapsed" as a result of corrosion early last spring.
No children were on or near the bridge when it fell two feet to the ground, Livingood said.
Livingood said the school immediately closed that part of the playground.
"It's just not safe for students anymore," she said.
Maintenance employees weren't able to repair it, and the equipment company no longer makes the parts for the climbing station and bridge to fix it, according to the Crittenden-Mt. Zion principal.
A Northern Kentucky Health Department inspector examined the playground in March 2019 and described the "rusting/deteriorating" equipment in the inspection report reviewed by WCPO.
The inspector required action to be taken "within 10 days."
A health department inspection report filed in August indicated that the playground was "off limits to students."
Principal Livingood said the cost of playgrounds is "definitely a factor" in schools keeping equipment for decades.
"It's extremely expensive to build playgrounds," Livingood said.
Crittenden-Mt. Zion Elementary School has play areas, but no longer has a playground with equipment.
Livingood has reviewed proposals for a new playground and parents will help raise some of the money to pay for the equipment.
"What's out there right now would cost about $70,000," she said.
Northwest Local School District - Colerain Elementary
The playground equipment at Colerain Elementary hasn't collapsed, but the rust and corrosion is evident and within easy reach of students.
And, that's after the school 'fixed' the problem.
A Hamilton County Health Department inspector in May 2018 documented rusted playground equipment platforms at Colerain Elementary, including one platform that "partially corroded away from platform edge."
Six months later, in November of last year, an inspector documented a repeat violation for the rusted platforms, and a repeat violation for a chain climbing ladder that posed "pinch hazards" to children who used it.
Northwest Local School District Spokeswoman Lindsey Creecy said employees painted the rusted surfaces with a rubber coating material.
"Every notice that we received was considered to be a 'non-critical' issue and we consider those things to be routine," Creecy told WCPO.
During the school's most recent inspection in April of this year, an inspector identified more repeat non-critical violations and described a platform as "severely deteriorated."
The April 2019 inspection report said "it may be necessary to take this platform out of use until repaired."
Creecy told us the platform couldn't be replaced because the manufacturer went out of business.
"Our maintenance team put up boards within 24 hours and our staff came and volunteered and actually painted it so it could be aesthetically pleasing," Creecy said.
The boards, which surround the corroded platform, make it more difficult for children to stand on the rusted surface.
But, as the I-Team walked around the playground equipment, it was easy to see and touch some of the worst corrosion.
Creecy declined to comment on that.
"Our custodial workers have overseen monthly routine inspections," Creecy said in a written statement emailed Monday to WCPO. "We are now transitioning to a plan where custodians and the maintenance staff share the responsibility of oversight."
'Nobody's following through with repairs'
Although Teri Hendry considers playgrounds in general to be safe, she's concerned about the lack of playground maintenance.
"Nobody's following through with the repairs," she told WCPO.
Hendry has "read a lot of maintenance reports" over the years.
And, in those reports she has seen some identified problems not get repaired -- something that was also clear from the inspection reports reviewed by the I-Team.
In addition, Hendry said school district "maintenance is often one of the first things that gets cut."
The maintenance staff in the Southwest Local School District was cut from four positions to two, according to Superintendent John Hamstra.
Overall, the Southwest Local School District cut the most recent budget by $1 million.
Hamstra said it's one of the reasons the district hasn't invested heavily in playgrounds.
"Do you want to put money out here on a playground or in the building where kids are seven hours out of the day," Hamstra said.
The district broke ground last month on a new middle school and three new elementary schools.
Hamstra is excited about the future schools and their playgrounds.
"We have new playgrounds coming, built for this century, not playgrounds built for several decades ago," he said.
The playground at Crosby Elementary will be the first to get bulldozed.