Teach them to swim, teach them to survive

Louisiana drownings remind us how dangerous even safe-looking water can be

August 09, 2010|Susan Reimer

A teenager who could not swim stepped off a sand bar into deep water in a Louisiana river last week, and six other teens, none of whom could swim, drowned trying to help him. All the while, parents, none of whom could swim, watched helplessly.

While a passer-by managed to save the first teen, family members cried out in terrible pain as rescuers brought the bodies of the children — three siblings from one family and three brothers from another — to shore.

The news left Cathy Bellarin with a particular sadness. The Anne Arundel County outdoor educator has just wrapped up her 30th year of trying to drown-proof schoolchildren in a county with more than 500 miles of shoreline — a county where just about every neighborhood has its own spot where children can drown if they can't swim.

Ms. Bellarin's program has survived the threat of budget cuts several times over the years, but its funding is in place for another year, despite the county's dire budget problems. Parents are asked to pay $30 to defray the costs to bus the fifth-graders to pools for their lessons, but there is money for those who can't afford it.

She has five days to teach the children how dangerous water can be, how to survive in it, and how to avoid putting yourself at risk if a friend is in trouble.

Even experienced swimmers learn that it is hard to tread water in jeans and tennis shoes. Children won't trust a flotation device unless they have actually used one. And the swim team kids learn that if you jump in the water because you think you can save a friend, you are almost certainly going to drown, too.

"Reach or throw, never go," is the drown-proofing equivalent of "Stop, drop and roll."

By the end of the week, about half the students can pass the deep water test — jump in and swim 25 yards.

"We don't have the time to teach the students to swim," she said. "We teach them defense."

Over the years, Ms. Bellarin says, she has seen a rise in the number of poor and minority children who can swim. But because community pools, swim lessons and swim teams are most often available only to the rich or middle class, there are many families in which neither the kids nor the parents can swim. That's what happened in Shreveport.

"If the parents have a fear, the kids aren't going to learn either," Ms. Bellarin said. "If the kids are afraid, the parents won't force it."

In a country where we think health care is a privilege, not a right, a country where parents can opt out of inoculations and put other children at risk, and where schools are already asked to teach children so much more than just reading and math, mandatory swim lessons would be a tough sell.

Indeed, Ms. Bellarin's program is voluntary, and although only two of the county's 79 elementary schools opted out this year, the teachers most often object to the time taken away from preparing for the state's mandatory testing.

The children, too, can opt out, and those who do, Ms. Bellarin said, are often from families who find the whole notion of swimming too unfamiliar and too frightening.

But Shreveport is grieving for six teenagers, and I bet that community would not object now to a chance to go back in time and get their children drown-proofed. They would not now consider swimming lessons a luxury.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her e-mail is susan.reimer@baltsun.com. Twitter.com/susanreimer.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.