4 ways to improve swim safety, reduce student drowning deaths

Swimming lessons
Brothers Warsame, Yonis and Abdi Geele, left to right, listen to swim instructor Rachel Bushy describe their next drill Tuesday, July 2, 2013 at the Emma B. Howe YMCA in Coon Rapids.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson
Abdullahi Charif
Abdullahi Charif, 12, died in gym class at St. Louis Park Middle School. Charif died of an accidental drowning, the Ramsey County Medical Examiner's Office has determined. A teacher found the boy in the pool Thursday morning at the end of a swimming lesson. He died March 1, 2014, at Children's Hospital in St. Paul.
Courtesy of Fred Pritzker

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

As MPR News' Laura Yuen reported, close to a dozen school drownings across the country over the past few years have been heartbreakingly similar. Most of them involved immigrant children who did not know how to swim, and no lifeguard was on duty.

Tom Griffiths , founder of Aquatic Safety Group and a national expert on swimming safety joined The Daily Circuit to discuss ways to better protect students in school swimming classes.


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1. All school pools should have a dedicated lifeguard

The physical education teacher or swim instructor at a school is typically expected to supervise the students, monitor all doors, manage equipment and water chemicals, Griffiths said. This leads them to be distracted while children are in the water.

"A lifeguard with the singular task dedicated to visual surveillance of people in the water is the only way to go regardless of the activity," he said.

2. All pools should have a 'note and float' policy

All non-swimmers in a pool area should be identified with a wristband or necklace so everyone in the facility knows, Griffiths said. This helps increase situational awareness among parents, teachers and other students.

Non-swimmers should be protected with life jackets, he said.

"If we just transfer or extend the use of life jackets from boats and open water and require every non-swimmer to use a life jacket while we're teaching them how to swim... we'd reduce the drowning rate by 50 percent," Griffiths said.

3. When you see anything that looks odd in the pool, interact with that individual

Drowning victims don't all behave the same and often can appear to be participating in horseplay, he said. Lifeguards often have trouble seeing swimmers who go beneath the surface because of the ripple effect and lighting near the water.

"There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind," wrote Mario Vittone for Slate. "To get an idea of just how quiet and undramatic from the surface drowning can be, consider this: It is the No. 2 cause of accidental death in children, ages 15 and under (just behind vehicle accidents)--of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult. In some of those drownings, the adult will actually watch the child do it, having no idea it is happening."

4. No texting near the pool

"Texting is neglecting around the water," Griffiths said.