EXCLUSIVE: Mom’s lobbying leads to new safety feature in public dorm rooms

082516 Atlanta: Georgia Tech student Clark Jacobs hangs out in his room at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house Thursday August 25, 2016. Jacobs is back in school after cracking his skull in January 10, 2015 when he fell out of his bunk bed. The mechanical engineering student isn't taking any chances and now sleeps on a bed below his assigned loft.  Jacobs and his family have started a public awareness campaign to have guard rails installed on bunk and loft beds. They hope the practice becomes mandatory.   BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM
082516 Atlanta: Georgia Tech student Clark Jacobs hangs out in his room at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house Thursday August 25, 2016. Jacobs is back in school after cracking his skull in January 10, 2015 when he fell out of his bunk bed. The mechanical engineering student isn't taking any chances and now sleeps on a bed below his assigned loft. Jacobs and his family have started a public awareness campaign to have guard rails installed on bunk and loft beds. They hope the practice becomes mandatory. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Beginning this fall, lofts and bunk beds to have rails

Students at Georgia’s public colleges and universities will find a new safety feature in their dorm rooms this fall: rails on any bed higher than 36 inches off the ground.

The change follows years of lobbying from a Cobb County mother whose son was critically injured in 2015.

“All it takes is one roll and you’re out of that bed, and it can be devastating,” said Mariellen Jacobs. “My kid never fell out of the bed until he did.”

Clark Jacobs, then 20, fell seven feet from his lofted bed to the linoleum floor and fractured his skull. After two emergency surgeries, Clark spent months at Atlanta's Shepherd Center before he was able to return to his family's Kennesaw home. In August 2016, Clark returned to school and the Kappa Sigma fraternity house — but not his loft. This time, his twin bed was on the floor.

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Mariellen Jacobs started an awareness campaign called “Rail Against the Danger” or RAD, after her son’s injury. She contacted the University System of Georgia and visited college campuses to share Clark’s story and photos showing him hospitalized, on a ventilator with his head fully bandaged. During one summer, mother and son attended all of the freshman orientation sessions at Georgia Tech to talk about rails.

During a visit to Georgia College in Milledgeville, the Jacobs’ presentation got the attention of Larry Christenson, the school’s executive director of university housing. In his 35 years working in student housing, Christenson said falling out bed was rarely discussed.

On Jan. 14, 2015, Clark Jacobs underwent brain surgery at WellStar Kennestone Hospital. This photo was taken hours after the surgery. (Family photo)
On Jan. 14, 2015, Clark Jacobs underwent brain surgery at WellStar Kennestone Hospital. This photo was taken hours after the surgery. (Family photo)

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

“In my 35 years, I can only think of two accidents reported to me, but those were relatively minor injuries,” he said. He believes Georgia is the first state mandating the rails for college beds.

Thousands of injuries each year are linked to to bunk beds, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Injury Prevention. Dr. Randall Loder, an orthopedic surgeon at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, co-authored the study with a medical student. The study found 639,700 emergency department visits, including 8,200 that occurred at schools, stemmed from bunk bed injuries - falls and other incidents - between 2006 and 2015.

Christenson, who previously chaired an advisory group on student housing, made bed rails a priority in his position. Other college leaders agreed. College-owned fraternity and sorority houses are also included, Christenson said.

Colleges and universities were notified in April of the change and began purchasing and installing the barriers on beds, according to the University System. Any student who doesn’t want the rail on a lofted bed must sign a waiver stating he or she knows the risks.

“The safety and well-being of our students is of paramount importance to the University System of Georgia and its 26 institutions,” the University System said in a statement. “These new guidelines will help ensure a safer living environment for students and we are thankful for the strong partnership all stakeholders provided during this process.”

Additionally, the days of students or parents building their own beds, or purchasing one from a local store and bringing it to campus, are over.

Clark Jacobs, right, and his mother, Mariellen, shared his story with Shepherd Center board members earlier this year.
Clark Jacobs, right, and his mother, Mariellen, shared his story with Shepherd Center board members earlier this year.

“It’s too hard to regulate,” Christenson explained. “It’s either what we provide or one from a company we approve.”

Jacobs has contacted the Consumer Product Safety Commission it hopes rails will one day come with any bed purchase. The manufacturers make the rails, but they are usually an additional cost for institutions.

Clark Jacobs, now 24, still suffers lingering effects from his traumatic brain injury, including fatigue, rents a room in a house off-campus. He takes two or three classes a semester at Tech, and hopes to complete his mechanical engineering degree in the spring. The path to his degree has been longer than Clark planned, but he and his family are grateful for his continued strides.

“Would you stop wearing a bike helmet? Would you stop wearing a seat belt? No,” Mariellen Jacobs said. “It’s not worth the risk.”

NEW RULES FOR COLLEGE BEDS

Students living on campus at a Georgia public college or university will have two options if they want a lofted bed:

1. If the bunk bed or loft bed frame is 36 inches or higher from the ground, a safety rail will be required.

2. If a student chooses to have a lofted bed, but no rail, he or she must sign a waiver acknowledging the safety risks.

Source: The University System of Georgia

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