Two drownings in Connecticut high schools have spurred state legislation that some claim could pose an unmanageable financial burden.
Last year, two high-school students — both freshmen boys from Ghana — drowned during swim classes at their respective schools. Malvrick Donkor drowned in Manchester, Conn., in November 2012. He reportedly was found by students in the deep end and was estimated to have been underwater 17 minutes, according to the local press. In January 2012, Marcum Asiamah drowned in East Hartford, Conn. during a swim class. The town paid a $1.5 million settlement to his family.
Little is known about the circumstances surrounding the tragedies because school, police and government officials have refused to discuss the details, even denying the local Hartford Courant's Freedom of Information Act request, according to the paper.
In response to the incidents, at least three bills have been introduced into the Connecticut House of Representatives seeking to, as one put it, “establish a uniform policy regarding school pool safety so as to reduce the loss of life or injury related to swimming at public schools.”
All the bills were introduced in January and lack specificity, functioning solely as placeholders while details are determined.
HB 5113 by Rep. Stephen Dargan (D-West Haven) has progressed the most, receiving a public hearing early in February. At the hearing, several parties made proposals.
The Connecticut Association of Schools and the Connecticut Recreation and Parks Association jointly suggested that the law require all pools to have at least one certified lifeguard on duty during classes and open swim periods. During swim team practices and meets, they suggest, a lifeguard or lifeguard-certified coach should be present. Additionally, they recommend that teachers be required to have lifeguard, water safety instructor and CPR certifications.
The local American Red Cross also recommended that a certified lifeguard, other than the teacher, be in the swim area during classes, with the sole job of watching the water.
Others suggested limiting class size and/or giving a swim test and then restricting less experienced students to certain depths and having them wear personal flotation devices.
While nobody questions the need to safeguard students, some worry that the financial strain imposed by the requirements could force schools to close their swim programs.
“As both the state and local governments face difficult budgets, if ... [the costs of the legislation] become too burdensome … CCM is fearful that these programs may need to be reduced or eliminated,” stated the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.
One commenter, Joseph Gorman, supervisor of health and physical education for the Waterbury School District, responded to a recommendation that would require all physical education teachers to gain water safety instructor certification. For his district to do this, he said, it would cost more than $45,000 in course fees and teacher stipends, compared with the current $1,500 to sustain lifeguard certifications.
He also took issue with a recommendation that lifeguards be added to maintain a 15-to-one teacher-to-student ratio.
“At only $10 per hour — hardly a lucrative salary range — the approximate cost for four noncertified assistant lifeguards in Waterbury would still exceed $100,000 per year ...,” Gorman said. “Fifteen-to-one ratios are untenable and unnecessary to ensure safety in a properly structured and actively supervised educational setting.”
The question of whether to require a certified lifeguard in addition to coaches and teachers seems to weigh most heavily on people’s minds. Some schools have lifeguard-certified teachers and coaches who work alone, while others believe that one person can’t do it all.
“If we’re saying you should be in an elevated position and scanning your area of responsibility once every 10 seconds, and you’re to be positioned so you can get to and manage an emergency in another 20 seconds, how could you possibly also be teaching or coaching?” said Alison Osinski, owner of Aquatic Consulting Services in Avalon, Calif.
Carlton L. Hume, the attorney representing the families of Donkor and Asiamah, believes a lifeguard should be required.
“In many cases, the gym teacher is ... being called upon to wear all the different hats. He’s got to teach the class, be the lifeguard and the disciplinarian,” said the managing partner of Hartford-based Hume Law Firm. “From my experience, it appears that ... it’s probably not adequate [for providing] protection for these children.
"I don’t believe that they should get rid of pool activities or aquatic classes. That’s where many learn to swim - in school. However I believe they should have a lifeguard there."
There is clearly plenty of work to do ironing out the language of HB 1551, leaving industry associations unsure whether to support or oppose the bill. But they know that drafting the language clearly requires walking a fine line.
If schools are forced to close their swim programs, they say, the whole purpose of the bill would have been defeated.