Across the nation, three drowning-related lawsuits have made headlines recently, raising questions over the safety of school-related swimming.
In Texas, the Houston Independent School District faces two drowning lawsuits, stemming from incidents that occurred about two months apart.
In April 2008,Vincent Agwouke, 17, drowned in the swimming pool at Westside High School after he and several other students jumped in, following a science experiment.
Shortly thereafter, Ana Rodriguez, 9, drowned in the pool at T.H. Rogers Elementary School during a summer recreation program organized by the city of Houston, also named in the lawsuit. Rodriguez was hearing-impaired and known to experience seizures.
In both cases, safety policies were lacking, said Martin Cirkiel, the Austin-based attorney representing the victims’ families.
“Nobody wants to make it so difficult for kids to swim that these programs go by the wayside, but in both cases they could have been avoided by some simple policies and practices,” Cirkiel said. “People just need to realize they have to be vigilant with kids. We hope if nothing else from these lawsuits, people get that message.”
The cases are currently making their way through the court system. No one from HISD responded to email requests for comment.
In August 2010, Arizona attorney Kristin Rooney filed a $26 million wrongful death claim on behalf of the family of 16-year-old Jesus “Jesse” Prado, who died May 14, 2010. He had been pulled from the Ironwood High School pool two days earlier. The Notice of Claim was filed against the city of Glendale (Ariz.), the Peoria School District, and two teachers responsible for supervision during the swim class.
“No lawsuit has been filed to date, as the school district has been cooperative. We anticipate going to a private mediation on the matter early in the year,” Rooney said. “The case will bring to the surface several issues regarding the necessity of adherence to current regulations of public pools during school use, proper and adequate training of teachers responsible for supervising swimming activities of any kind, and the like. … Whether it’s a toddler in a bathtub or a child in a 5,000-square-foot pool, you simply don’t take your eyes off those who cannot swim.”
According to Danielle Airey, school spokeswoman, “To ensure student safety, the district will continue its review of all policies and procedures. All high school pools were immediately closed following this tragedy. Until the review is complete, pools will remain closed for instructional use. The district continues to grieve for the loss of Jesus ‘Jesse’ Prado. The Ironwood family and the entire district send their deepest condolences to the Prado family for their tragic loss.”
Further east, the parents of 12-year-old Nicole Suriel filed a Notice of Claim, signaling their intent to sue the city of New York for $20 million, following the death of their daughter. A student at Columbia Secondary School for Math Science and Engineering, she drowned in June 2010 on a class field trip to Long Beach, Long Island. Her father, Juan, told The New York Times, that neither he nor his wife had signed a permission slip giving consent for Nicole to attend the field trip, a violation of city regulations. According to the Times, no lifeguards were on duty.
Perhaps some of the problem stems from the fact that swimming is no longer part of the curriculum in most schools and funding for physical education has been cut back severely in recent years, said Shawn DeRosa, JD. Still, schools need to do more to prevent these types of tragedies, added the manager of aquatics at Penn State University in State College, Pa., also president of DeRosa Aquatic Consulting.
“It’s disheartening to hear of the number of students drowning during school-sponsored activities,” he said. “Finding qualified lifeguards who can work during school hours is difficult, as most lifeguards are in school themselves. It may be that school administrators fail to appreciate the true risks of the pool. They may wrongfully assume that a teacher is able to provide adequate supervision in class, thinking that a swimming class is no different than any other physical education class.”
But DeRosa said that thinking can quickly lead to tragedy, adding, “Lifeguards would provide that additional layer of protection.”