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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Economics shouldn’t jeopardize kids’ safety in the water

Swimming instructor Shelsey Roundy  tows her four young students across A.M. Cannon pool on Monday as she teaches them basic floating and treading water.  (Christopher Anderson)

The reminders come every year, sometimes as tragedy, sometimes as relief.

A child drowns, or almost does. Last week, there were two near misses – a 3-year-old girl at Witter Pool and a 4-year-old boy at City Beach in Coeur d’Alene. Fortunately, lifeguards and alert swimmers saved the kids. But it was a chilling reminder about our cooling ways: All that summer fun has a dark fringe to it. We’ll be lucky if we make it to October without someone dying in the water. On average, two dozen kids drown each year in Washington.

It’s such an obvious thing to say, and yet it seems to always need saying: Kids need education and constant supervision in the water.

“I think it’s very important that (children) have swim lessons, with our open water and lakes,” said Steve Anthony, the Coeur d’Alene recreation director, in an interview before the near-drowning. “It’s an important life skill.”

If it seems that summer just began, consider that the city of Spokane’s pool season is nearing the halfway point. Now, with the weather finally warming up, the city’s entering its second round of swim lessons at its six new pools – pools that the city and taxpayers ought to be proud of.

The lessons are mostly filled up, but the first round of lessons broke along the city’s socioeconomic fault lines: Lessons at Comstock and Shadle sold out, said Carl Strong, city aquatics director. Liberty, Cannon and Hillyard pools had a lot less demand and offered fewer lessons. Witter offered none – in part because they haven’t been offered there in the past, Strong said.

That’s one big piece of the water safety story: Children from poor families and minorities are quite a bit less likely to get swim lessons – and quite a bit more likely to drown. That’s not targeted at last week’s incidents. I don’t know anything about those children or their circumstances. But there is an affluence curve to swimming ability.

It’s not just lessons – the pools in the city’s more affluent neighborhoods are generally used more. Strong said the Comstock pool averages around 1,000 swimmers a day; the beautiful new A.M. Cannon pool is about half that.

Random visits to the pools last week confirmed that impression: Comstock, on the South Hill, was jammed Wednesday night. The ice cream truck waited outside, tinkling deviously. At the same time on Saturday in West Central, Cannon was nearly deserted. A Saturday. With temperatures coming down from 90. And no ice cream truck in sight.

A new study from the University of Memphis finds a strong correlation between poverty and poor swimming skills. The authors surveyed children in six cities – not including Spokane – and found that two-thirds of those whose families qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch could swim poorly or not at all. Twelve percent could not swim, period – twice the rate of other children.

Among black and Hispanic children the figures are more pronounced. Across the board, minority kids and poor ones were less likely to take swim lessons, more likely to fear the water and more likely to drown. African-American children ages 5 to 14 drown at three times the rate of white kids, and they’re five times more likely to drown in a swimming pool, according to figures reported by the Wall Street Journal. The National Safe Kids Campaign says low-income kids generally are four times as likely to drown as other children.

You might imagine that this is simply an economic issue, but it seems not to be. Fear – on the part of kids and parents – was mentioned as a larger factor in the surveys. For African-American families, there is also a history of discrimination and cultural habit to overcome.

Still, money is a part of it. For the first time, city kids pay to swim, though the $1 admission charge for kids seems modest to me. Lessons at the city pools cost $48. County pools charge $35, Spokane Valley pools charge $30, and the city of Coeur d’Alene’s summer lessons at City Beach cost $25.

If you cannot understand how $48 per child might be an insurmountable obstacle, you need to get out more. There is help for poor families – the Spokane Parks Foundation will cover half the cost of lessons for qualifying families, and similar programs are available elsewhere – but you have to wonder how widely known that is.

This is one of the ways that poverty operates insidiously in the lives of children. We think of food, shelter, medicine. But what about Little League, soccer, swimming? About the million different ways they can see the expressions of us-versus-them in daily life? Swimming lessons may not be a necessity, strictly, but how heartless do you have to be to draw that line? We’re not talking beer and lottery tickets.

We’ve got a lot of great new pools in this city. We ought to do whatever we can to make sure everyone can use them safely. That’s no knock on the city; it’s not like we can snap our fingers and force everyone into the pool for lessons. For you and me, it might simply mean adding our vigilance to that of the lifeguards and other parents.

Because there’s one more sobering fact in that swim study: The children rated as poor swimmers or nonswimmers aren’t staying out of the water. Half of them visited their local pool once a week.

So keep your eyes peeled. There’s a lot of summer left.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or