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Laura Yuen, Published March 31 2014

School drownings rare, but not unprecedented

The recent drowning of a St. Louis Park seventh grader in his school’s swimming pool was a rare incident, but not unprecedented.

Earlier this month in Fargo, a high school student who recently immigrated from Africa died three weeks after nearly drowning in his gym class.

Close to a dozen school children drowned across the country over the past few years, and their deaths have been heartbreakingly similar. Most were immigrant children who did not know how to swim, and no lifeguard was on duty.

They include Abdullahi Charif, who on Feb. 27 was transported to the hospital after his 6-foot-tall body was removed from the swimming pool.

Ali Warsame recalls sending his eldest son to school that day, and within a couple of hours, receiving terrible news.

“We as a family – me, my wife, my kids – need to know what happened to Abdullahi in the water of his school, and what caused him to die there,” Warsame said. “As for the questions we have: Why someone don’t see him when he’s suffering in the water? Where is his teacher? Where are the other students?”

Warsame said his son was afraid of the water – so afraid that he wouldn’t get his feet wet when walking around Lake Calhoun with his family.

While all drownings are tragic, cases like Abdullahi’s are especially troubling because they took place in schools that parents trusted to keep their children safe.

His death has focused attention on inadequate staffing of many pools, including those in schools – and need for swimming lessons, particularly for immigrant and minority children.

Legislation proposed by two Democratic lawmakers from Minneapolis, state Rep. Karen Clark and state Sen. Jeff Hayden, would require all public schools to teach swimming – or at least basic water-safety principles if the schools are not located near pools.

“Throughout the whole state, we have kids who are not learning to swim,” Clark said. “It seems to me so basic that children would get that instruction. We’ve gone backwards, unfortunately.”

But Clark’s bill, and its companion in the Senate, have yet to have a hearing this year.

‘Recipe for disaster’

Although most people likely think schools are a safe haven, children drown at school more often than the public is aware of, said Tom Griffiths, a national consultant on water safety.

“Unfortunately, the way we conduct swimming lessons in school pools is just a recipe for disaster,” he said. “It’s a perfect storm.”

Griffiths has offered expert testimony in lawsuits filed by victims’ families against school districts. He said out of the dozen or so cases he’s been involved with over the past few years, one thing stands out.

“The common element is there’s no dedicated lifeguard on duty watching the children in the pool,” he said. “The instructor is taking attendance, is getting equipment, is taking care of behavioral issues, and also trying to safeguard the children in the pool.”

School officials around the country think physical education teachers can teach swimming at the same time they’re scanning the water for students in distress. Over the past 25 years, aquatic-safety experts have determined that is impossible.

The most recent lifeguarding manual from the American Red Cross put it this way: “You cannot perform adequate surveillance duties while also coaching a swim team or teaching a swimming lesson. These additional responsibilities should be performed by a different lifeguard, coach or instructor, even if there are no other patrons in the water.”

At St. Louis Park Middle School, no lifeguard was present when Abdullahi Charif drowned. According to Fred Pritzker, the attorney representing his family, the gym teacher was in charge of as many as 30 students in the class, and did not notice Abdullahi’s body until the other children had made their way to the locker room.

Sara Thompson, a spokeswoman for the school district, declined to respond to Pritzker’s statements while its own investigation is under way. The middle school’s pool remains closed, and Thompson said it’s too early to say whether the school district will revise its water-safety policies in light of the drowning.

Parents did not need to sign a waiver allowing their children to partake in the swim lessons, she said.

“It’s treated like any other class,” Thompson said.

No lifeguard law

Minnesota law doesn’t require lifeguards at most public pools, including those in schools. But data from the Minnesota Department of Health suggest that the presence of lifeguards could make a difference in preventing school drownings.

The health department tracks every time emergency medical responders are called to a public pool. Since 2000, lifeguards were more than twice as likely to be on duty in so-called “near drownings” in which a person survived, as they were in actual drownings.

Dr. Ed Ehlinger, the state’s health commissioner, said schools have a responsibility to make sure their facilities are as safe as possible because parents expect their children to be properly supervised.

“So, for a school to have a pool where kids are without a trained lifeguard is not appropriate,” Ehlinger said.

After Abdullahi Charif’s death, Edina Public Schools changed its policy to require lifeguards during swim lessons. The St. Cloud School District took a similar approach after a student drowned in 1999 at one of its school pools.

No guarantees

But lifeguards are no guarantee of safety, and even anti-drowning experts are divided over whether they should be mandatory.

Bob Pratt, director of education for the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a drowning-prevention group, said his initial reaction is to require lifeguards at all public pools, including those in schools.

“However, it gets more complex because in today’s financial situation, a lot of municipalities and school districts will say, ‘We simply can’t afford it. We’re going to close down the pool,’” he said.

When that occurs, Pratt said, fewer children learn how to swim.

Water-safety advocates say there are other basic precautions that schools should take to make swim lessons safer. For one, they say teachers should separate the swimmers from the non-swimmers to better identify struggling students.

That’s increasingly important as schools become more ethnically diverse.

Although there appears to be little research in the United States linking swimming abilities with immigrant groups, the Centers for Disease Control has a wealth of information on drowning disparities across race. African-American children ages 5 to 14 are almost three times more likely than white children to drown.

In St. Louis Park, police have turned over their criminal investigation into Abdullahi Charif’s death to the Hennepin County Attorney’s office for review. The initial police report describes two physical-education teachers trying to save Abdullahi’s life. One performed CPR, while the other was on the phone with emergency dispatchers, relaying instructions to her colleague.

Warsame said he did many things right as a father, but regrets he was not there the morning Abdullahi was pulled from the pool.

“He was a really good kid,” Warsame said. “All the good things God gives to humankind was in there, with him.”