High School P.E. Drownings Emphasize Need for Supervision
DECK DUTY Physical education teacher Mike Tyrrell works with students at Sheehan High School in Wallingford, Conn., where administrators plan to partner with local recreation officials to have lifeguards present at all P.E. swimming classes. (Photo Christopher Zajac/Record-Journal)
Last year in central Connecticut, at high schools located less than 10 miles apart, two students drowned in supervised physical education swimming classes.
On Nov. 21, 14-year-old Manchester High School freshman Malvrick Donkor, a Ghana native, was found in the deep end of the school's pool approximately 17 minutes after he disappeared from the water's surface. According to published reports, a surveillance camera showed Donkor climbing down a ladder into the deep end. "There's no splashing, no flailing like you would typically think of," an unnamed source who viewed the surveillance footage told the Hartford Courant. "He just slipped underwater. Other kids were swimming over the top of him, not knowing he was down below." Students noticed Donkor's body after class ended, and P.E. teacher Thayer Redman jumped in and pulled the boy out of the pool; Donkor later died at a local hospital. Redman was placed on administrative leave, the pool was closed for nearly a month, and school officials have removed the P.E. swimming unit indefinitely.
Less is known about the drowning incident at East Hartford High School 11 months earlier. About the only thing clear in that case is that 15-year-old Marcum Asiamah — another freshman from Ghana — drowned during P.E. class on Jan. 11, 2012. East Hartford police chief Mark Sirois has said that criminal charges at one time were pending against a teacher but were never filed. Police have since closed the case, and the superintendent, school board, mayor and prosecutor's office still weren't talking as of December. School officials won't even comment on whether Asiamah's death has changed the way East Hartford approaches swimming safety, citing pending litigation by the boy's family.
While more details must emerge before conclusions can be drawn about what, exactly, happened at either pool, the Connecticut tragedies are not isolated incidents. In October, for example, the family of 14-year-old Antonio Reyes, who was found at the bottom of the deep end of the Wenatchee (Wash.) High School swimming pool after a P.E. class in late 2011, reached a $2 million settlement in a negligence lawsuit filed against the Wenatchee School District. The settlement also calls for reforms that include having a certified lifeguard on duty when people are in the pool and making greater efforts to evaluate students' swimming ability.
"It is not an uncommon occurrence to have drownings at school facilities," says Bob Pratt, a veteran lifeguard and lifeguard trainer who also is director of education for the Lansing, Mich.-based drowning-awareness organization Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. "The unfortunate situation is that many school districts don't believe that they need to have a dedicated lifeguard if the class teacher also has been certified. They think that person can hold a dual role, but that person really can't."
State and local jurisdictions vary in their regulations regarding the use of lifeguards on deck during learn-to-swim programs and swim team practices, and availability of certified guards is often an issue during daytime hours. But there's no arguing the need for dedicated lifeguards who are consistently scanning the pool at all times, regardless of the activity occurring, says Tim Hammond, natatorium coordinator at Grinnell College and a certified lifeguard, lifeguard instructor and lifeguard instructor trainer. Coaches and P.E. teachers — even ones with lifeguard certification — typically are too focused on individual swimmers during practices and classes to employ traditional lifeguard scanning techniques.
"If you are going to make the statement that safety is your number-one priority, then the lifeguard needs to be actively guarding any time there is a person in or near the water," Hammond says. "Otherwise, you don't have trained people who are aware of everything that could be happening. The situations in which lifeguards become the most complacent are when people are learning to swim or are skilled swimmers. Oftentimes, that's when tragedies happen."
In the wake of the Connecticut drownings, administrators at Mark T. Sheehan High School (located approximately 45 minutes south of Manchester High) are planning to partner with the local parks and recreation department and add lifeguards to all P.E. swim classes, which can include as many as 28 students each. "We've been talking about it for years," Wallingford Public Schools superintendent Salvatore Menzo told the district's board of education in mid-December. "Unfortunately, circumstances occurred to bring it even more to light."
According to The Record-Journal in Meriden, Conn., Menzo said all teachers who instruct swim classes also are certified lifeguards, but "it's great to have another set of eyes."
Sheehan officials have the right idea, says Peter Beireis, committee chair of the Drowning Is Preventable arm of the California Park & Recreation Society's Aquatics Section, which serves as a clearinghouse for drowning-related information for all aquatics providers. "A big key for schools is to partner with local recreation departments, because they're going to either have the resources or at least a means to guide schools in their approaches to safety and lifeguarding," says Beireis, who also is senior recreation supervisor for the Department of Recreation & Community Services in Newark, Calif. "What's more cost effective: finding lifeguards and having a safer program, or having a tragedy and spending several million dollars in legal fees and a settlement?"
Other school districts are taking proactive steps by adding more lifeguard-certified P.E. instructors or positioning students with lifeguard certification at lifeguard stations during P.E. classes. In those situations, experts warn that aquatics administrators must carefully observe the social dynamics taking place when students oversee their peers, as vigilance might be lax.
Pratt also suggests looking to retirees who hold updated lifeguard certifications and training credentials to cover daytime shifts at schools. "We're talking about guarding at a pool facility where a swimmer is never really more than 15 yards from safety," says Pratt, adding that finding older, active guards is easier than many aquatics directors might think. "The worst-case scenario is an active drowning victim who needs to be rescued. If the guard has a rescue tube, he or she jumps in and grabs the person, and if that tube is between the guard and the victim, it's going to float both of them. You certainly wouldn't want older people guarding on the beaches of Lake Michigan or the coast of Florida. But it is a completely different ballgame when you're talking about an indoor pool facility where there also are other adults available. I don't see any reason whatsoever that someone in their 50s, 60s, 70s or even 80s could not do that if they were in shape."
Manchester High School's pool reopened for recreational use by the general public on Dec. 18, 27 days after Donkor's drowning, but there has been no indication of when — or if — swimming will return to the P.E. curriculum.
Hammond, who also coaches Grinnell's men's and women's swim teams, hopes it will. "I would be concerned anytime there is a drowning and then a reduction in the swimming lessons program," he says. "Drownings are a fantastic argument for everyone needing to know how to swim. The need to have it in a public school curriculum is very important, because of the disparities between various populations' drowning rates. The fear of having a drowning in a class is a relevant fear. But if we, as an aquatics community, have appropriate guard coverage and our guards are trained the way they need to be trained — with ongoing classes and not just the minimum — I think that is providing a sufficiently safe environment to continue having an aquatics program."
Pratt agrees, adding that the Manchester incident should have been the focus of a national education campaign. "Certainly, closing the pool while an initial investigation is being done is absolutely appropriate," he says. "And while that was going on, it would have been a prime opportunity to have Good Morning America or Today air that surveillance video and have an expert talk about what drowning truly looks like. One of the biggest problems is that people — from school administrators to lifeguards and lifeguard instructors — don't realize what drowning looks like.
"We've known for about 50 years that there's no yelling and there's no waving, which is the way that Hollywood portrays it. And that's still the way it's portrayed in lifeguard manuals and training videos," continues Pratt, who says he has taken his concerns to the American Red Cross, to little avail. "So if that's what people are looking for, they miss the actual drowning."
At the very least, Pratt adds, local schools should invite representatives from a national or local lifeguard training organization to educate staff, students and parents about basic water safety and appropriate protocol in a drowning emergency. Advocates also want to see more schools include learn-to-swim classes in their P.E. programs — not eliminate them. High school might be a student's only (or final) opportunity to learn the sport, and the classes could pay off in other ways, too.
"If you can build a program with 'Introduction to Swimming' and 'Introduction to Water Safety' courses, then people might be encouraged to become lifeguards, water safety instructors and lifeguard instructor trainers," Hammond says, adding that basic aquatic safety programs can even be taught at schools without swimming pools. "There is always education that can occur. And that will help spread swimming safety knowledge throughout the community."
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