Students in a high school science class are excited about their upcoming class project in the school pool. The teacher has emailed the parents, sharing details about the project, but no permission forms to participate are sent home.
Although he has made it clear that any student who cannot swim or is afraid of being in the pool should let him know, not surprisingly, no students come forward. The teacher has no training or certification in life-saving, CPR, first aid, and the use of an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) device. Therefore, he makes arrangements for the physical education (PE) teacher to supervise the students while they are in the pool. She has the necessary training and certification.
Upon completion of the project, students are permitted to stay in the pool. The PE teacher heads to her office and the science teacher uses the bathroom, leaving the students unsupervised. One student is encouraged by peers to jump in the deep end and do a “cannon ball.” But Billy cannot swim, but didn’t tell anyone. He leaps into the pool, descends to the bottom and struggles to reach the surface. With no supervision in sight, he drowns.
While every district has safety risks, the risk of drowning in school pools, particularly among minority and special needs students, is real. Here are recommendations for the best school policies, procedures, and safeguards.
Snapshot of Issue
Published data have consistently shown that drowning is a leading cause of death for young people nationwide. An important consideration is that African American and Hispanic/Latino youth are at increased risk for drowning. The WISQARS (Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System) provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that from 1999 through 2007, unintentional injury was the leading cause of death for black youths from age 1 to 18, with drowning accounting for 16 percent of total deaths.
Drowning as a risk factor for mortality was second to motor vehicle accidents. Similar data indicate that white children are less likely to drown. About 10 percent of total deaths resulted from drowning, according to the WISQARS report.
Policies, Procedures, Safeguards
Here are two practical questions:
(1) “What are your school policies and procedures regarding student safety in your school pool?” and (2) “Do you feel that they are adequate?”
I would encourage you to consider the following recommendations:
An annual meeting (at the beginning of each school year) should discuss the policies and procedures, and attendance by all school staff is mandatory. It is not uncommon for school staff to be unfamiliar with or unaware of such policies.
Establish compulsory policies and procedures, such as attaining parental consent before allowing participation in any activities in the school pool.
Make it explicitly known that all school staff are required to adhere to them. It should be required that parents phone the teacher (or designated school staff) and give verbal and written consent.
Conduct regular crisis drills to ensure all schools with pools have procedures to respond to an accident. When I worked at Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Texas, 1982 to 2005, we conducted crisis drills that involved pool accidents. We also ensured that we had the appropriate supervision, staff had life-saving training, including CPR/First Aid/AED, water safety, and that the AED’s battery was regularly checked.
All school staff should have the authority to phone 911 regardless of their role. Legal cases such as Rodriguez v. Houston Independent School District have questioned policy that the school nurse was the only school staff member allowed to phone 911 after assessing the emergency. This practice allows for precious time to be lost and departs from best practices.
When students with special needs are participating in school pool activities, a sensible ratio of 1:1 or 1:2 of trained school staff for every student should be employed. And equally important, a teachers aid and/or school staff supervising the student should have all the necessary training, such as CPR/First Aid/AED, water safety, and be aware of any pertinent physical and medical issues for students, such as seizure disorders.
The recommendations are best practices your school should already have established and highlight safety with respect to all water recreation.
Scott Poland is a professor at Nova Southeastern University and the co-director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office. Doctoral student Michael Pusateri assisted him in writing this article.