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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.

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.


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