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Drowning of 6 Black Youths a Powerful Lesson for Black Parents

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Kimberly Seals Allers: My heart just sank at the news.
Family of Drown Teens
Just last week, I blogged my concern about the disproportionately high drowning rates in the African-American community, and how more of our kids don't have the important life skill of swimming. I was moved to write by a recent USA Swimming survey, which found that approximately 70 percent of African-American children and 58 percent of Hispanic children report low or no swimming ability. I talked about my own swimming fears, even though my children enjoy swimming and there is a sizable pool at my home. 

So you can imagine how I reacted to the news that six teenagers (SIX!!) drowned in Shreveport's Red River earlier this week when they waded over a drop-off into much deeper water. The teenagers, aged 13 to 18, had come with their families to the area for a cookout. The victims were three siblings from the Warner family (Takeitha, 13, and her brothers JaMarcus, 14, and JaTavious, 17) and three brothers from the Stewart family (Litrelle, 18, LaDairus, 17, and Latevin, 15). The tragedy within this tragedy is that, according to published reports, the teens entered the water together, but only one boy slipped into the deep area at first. (He ended up being the only survivor.) The other teens went to help him, but they didn't know how to swim, either.

The USA Swimming survey noted that many black kids have a false sense of security about swimming, with many of them saying that they knew how to swim when in fact they'd had no formal lessons. The study also found that while 40 percent of children report that they are able to swim, only 18 percent of total respondents have ever taken a swim lesson from a certified instructor. (When asked how they learned to swim, 28 percent of Hispanic children and 26 percent of African-American children responded, "I taught myself.") This false sense of confidence often leads to tragedy, since 60 percent of the children with no to low swimming ability surveyed planned to spend time in and around the water this summer at least once per month. 

Another heartwrenching element of this tragic incident is that the sole survivor, D.J. Warner, 15 (the Warners' cousin), reportedly screamed for help. This stayed with me, because when I interviewed African-American Olympic gold medalist swimmer Cullen Jones, who serves as the spokesperson for Make a Splash, he specifically mentioned the misconception that most people drown flailing and screaming. Jones says that, in most cases, people drown in silence. Yet screaming is an important thing to do. 

But mostly I was reminded that we can no longer view swimming skills as a luxury of the elite. If we are equipping our children with all the life skills they need to survive and thrive in the world, swimming should be among those basics. Cullen Jones said that all it really takes is eight swimming lessons, and most kids will have learned enough water safety to be set for life. Just eight. Imagine what those eight lessons could have done for those seven teens -- the six who passed away and the young boy who now has to live with the trauma of losing his family and friends to the water. 

My prayers go out to the Warner and Stewart families. I hope the message to all black parents is clear: We must close this water gap and put our kids in (not out of) the water, in order to save their lives.

next: If You Think YOUR Kids Are Bad ....
46 comments so far | Post a comment now August 5, 2010, 4:21 AM

And if just ONE adult at the party had been able to swim themselves the older kids might not have perished. Sorry but you should’nt be allowing your children to play near/in a river if you can swim.

chris August 5, 2010, 5:37 AM

My heart goes out to these two families but I also agree with the above poster. If you don’t know how to swim, please stay away from bodies of water.

Anonymous August 5, 2010, 5:58 AM

Has ZERO to do w/skin color but with ability to swim. That’s why they drowned.

sue August 5, 2010, 7:19 AM

Excuse me what do you mean “luxury of the elite”? Many of us lower income people have made sure their kids know how swim.
I am scared of deep water and I know how to swim because of that fear. Both my kids were in the YMCA swim classes by the time they were 5.
I hope and pray the families will be able to over come this awful accident.

Jayson August 5, 2010, 7:41 AM

Visit to help make a difference.

SS August 5, 2010, 9:25 AM

I don’t think the author was saying that swimming is a “luxury of the elite” but that it has been viewed that way in the past but shouldn’t be.

Everyone should be sure their children learn how to swim early in childhood. It’s about survival.

Mary August 5, 2010, 10:04 AM

Where I live, a lot of black families belong to the YMCA and their memberships are either free or given at a reduced rate because they receive state aid. I don’t understand why it keeps coming up that swim lessons aren’t available in black communities or that it’s an “elite” thing. IT’S FREE!

Nita August 5, 2010, 10:11 AM

I am very disturbed by this tragedy for both families…I recently lost my brother on June 26, 2010 in the Bogue Chitto River in Bougulusa, La (He was a hard-working 32 year old married man with 6 kids)…However, unlike the six youth that drowned in the waters, my brother was a very good swimmer and drowned…We as African Americans are not exposed to those types of waters. Those rivers are very dangerous…the footage of the waters are very wide in range(in some parts of those rivers, it can drop off 22 ft.)
…and also, currents under the water are very crucial. The policies and laws need to changed concerning our lakes and rivers…there needs be more awareness about this matter. We should wear life-jackets on those waters, even if you are a life-guard; because, the fact-of-the-matter is, you never know where the dips are in the water, unless you are on those waters everyday. It’s not just about swimming lessons, it’s about safety procedures and awareness. We need to make a difference in our policy…How many more lives do we plan to lose?

Mariah August 5, 2010, 10:14 AM

The percentage of families receiving “free” or “reduced” YMCA rates does not even begin to touch the amount of low income families there are in the US. (Thank you YMCA for everything you do)

This story infuriated me and broke my heart at the same time. I must have ranted to my husband all through dinner about it. Nothing could anger me more than a senseless death. It’s important to make the loss of these childrens lives mean something no matter what race you belong to. The Human Race needs to understand the importance of swimming lessons for children, and the importance of programs and assistance for low income families.

I could not imagine standing on a shore and watch all of my children drown to death, crippled with fear and the inability to help them. May God Bless and extend his grace to these 2 families in their time of need.

(Sue, please stop rebutting a point by stating an extreme exception)

Mary August 5, 2010, 1:14 PM

If you couldn’t imagine standing on shore watching your family die, why take your family to a place with such a danger nearby?

As far as the amount of families not receiving free or reduced YMCA memberships, they can get out of the house and go get them. They’re there, they’re available, no one will knock on the door and tell them to come on over and swim.

At some point, people need to accept responsibility for themselves.

Mariah August 5, 2010, 1:38 PM


While the Y is a wonderful organization and yes they do offer a Financial Hardship program, the swimming programs are not simply “free” for everyone and anyone.
I do agree on 2 of your points and simply do not see the reason to state them on a public forum when these families have been through such a tragedy and suffered enough.
My statement involving “standing” on the shore had a 2 part meaning, depending on the readers ability to interpret. I agree that there is no way I could literally “stand” and do nothing, swimming ability or not. That is me though, and I am a different person and won’t say any more other than my dinner “rants” to my husband.

Mary August 5, 2010, 2:19 PM

I did not say the program is free to anyone and everyone. The program is free or reduced to those with a low income. Read that however you want.

The fact is, these people took their families to a place where they weren’t safe. You can put all the laws and policies in place that you want, they won’t save anyone. People always yell “there oughta’ be a law!”. We have many laws for many things that aren’t followed already. Pass a law against swimming in rivers without life jackets and people will still do it. What punishment will you enforce? Arrest them when they’re dead?

XXXX August 5, 2010, 2:57 PM


Dave Cutler August 5, 2010, 8:54 PM

This is a powerful lesson for ALL parents!

Drowning is a leading cause of accidental death of children in this country. Like a silent and invisible shark, it does not care what ethnicity it’s victim is, nor their sex, age, and even swimming ability.

Learning to swim and having supervision present is no guarantee that the risk of drowning is removed. In fact in about 90% of drownings involving children, supervision was present, and many drowning victims knew how to swim (CDC).

Parents and caregivers must be supervising their children at all times. Even so, additional layers of protection including drowning detection technologies must also be used wherever possible to dramatically reduce, if not eradicate, the risk of preventable and needless drowning. Otherwise this terrible silent epidemic needlessly killing our children and friends will continue on and on.

Mary August 6, 2010, 3:56 AM

David is right. Parents need to supervise their kids at all times.

Kids & water are so unpredictable, especially when that water is a river that is continuously moving. I grew up with a father whose job it was to pluck people from rivers with hooks.

For over 30 years he’d get calls and they were almost always to the same sections of the river. Signs could be posted and all the news media in the world doesn’t keep people out.

David August 7, 2010, 5:05 AM

I have noticed that the non-swimmers tend to drown quite a lot more than those who can swim. Why are these little milk duds wading in water? Why can’t they swim? ANSWER: parent are way to stupid. They can barely figure out how to reproduce. fuk the nigs!

Kara August 7, 2010, 12:26 PM

The stupidity on display here, from the blogger and the posters, is astounding.

Arlice Nichole August 9, 2010, 9:58 PM

I’ll admit, I’m very nervous around water, and my kids know it. My daughter knows how to swim, and I plan on learning how to swim with my son this fall. I find it interesting that many kids think they can swim.

AutumnSky August 10, 2010, 4:05 AM

OMG! Why do we have to point a finger of blame to everything! These poor parents have suffered the ultimate loss.. something most of us never even have to imagine. (Thank God!) The kids were just playing in the water, and had no idea that there was a drop-off. All we can do is learn from this tragic accident. If parents can’t afford swimming lessons, teach your children to swim youselves, if you can swim! That’s what my parents did, and we certainly didn’t have the money for lessons, with 6 children in the family. If you can’t swim, call around for cheap or free lessons. It REALLY is important!

lalala August 10, 2010, 7:26 AM

In our community (Texas Panhandle) swim lessons are no longer publicized at all, leaving all youth at risk. I think it boils down to advertising the need more so than the price. Many families (black, Hispanic, white, etc) might provide their children with lessons if they just realized how important it is. Our community used to have a program with the city pools to teach swimming, but I haven’t seen that since my kids were little (many years). They used to pick kids up in a bus at each grade school and take them for lessons at the beginning of the summer. Black parents need to become aware, too, that blacks typically have a higher, denser amount of body muscle which makes it harder for them to swim. This is evident in the disproportionately high number of black atheletes you see. Body fat makes you more bouyant, hence we have a higher number of white athletes in swimming competition. As with most situations, education is the answer. Let’s get these programs going again. It makes life safer for youth of every color.

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