Kate Tuttle: The deadly drowning this week of six teenagers -- all of them from two families -- is one of the saddest reminders of a perpetual problem: Kids plus summer heat plus unsupervised swimming minus even basic instruction in water safety equals tragedy. Things like this have happened before (most notably in 2006, when a church outing in Missouri ended in the loss of five children -- four from one family), and each time it happens, we wonder why so many of our children, youth and even adults can't swim. Why should swimming be a pastime of the suburban middle class, and so seemingly unavailable to the urban or rural poor, who are disproportionately likely to die in such a needless, horrible way?
It's a topic I wrote about just a few months ago: the racial and economic gap that leaves so many poor and black children vulnerable to drowning deaths that are so preventable as to be nearly inconceivable to the average white, middle-class parent reading about them. You can see this in the comments following articles about the recent tragedy; even well-meaning folks who offer condolences go on to ask questions like, "Why were they even swimming in that river if they didn't know how to swim?" and "How on earth could any parent fail to give their children swimming lessons?!"
Hard as it may be to believe, the opportunities simply aren't there for everybody. Swimming -- like so many things in our culture -- isn't an equal-opportunity summer pastime. Pools and lessons, so plentiful where I live, are nowhere to be found in the rural Louisiana that I visit frequently with my husband, whose parents both hail from that state. My mother-in-law is one of those people who never learned to swim -- and who, terrified of water, never pushed her own son to learn, either. No matter how obvious and logical it is that swimming lessons offer protection from drowning, all too frequently, parents who don't swim either lack access to swim lessons or don't take advantage of those that are offered, due to their own fear.
USA Swimming is hoping to change that through initiatives aimed at teaching every child in this country to swim. Bringing the program into schools (as they hope to do) seems like the best way to get their message across. Let's hope they can begin making a difference before more families suffer the kind of losses we saw this week in Shreveport.