ABC 6 Investigates School Pool Safety

Updated: 03/12/2014 6:55 PM
Created: 03/06/2014 10:48 PM
By: Laura Lee

(ABC 6 News) -- Questions continue to surround the tragic drowning of a 12-year-old boy in a Twin Cities public school pool prompting many school districts to re-examine their own pool safety policies.

At Ellis Middle School swimming is a required course as part of the Phy-Ed curriculum for seventh and eighth graders.

"We're providing an environment that helps kids understand water safety issues and most importantly making sure care for students is our number one priority," says Brad Bergstrom, the Director of Human Resources for Austin Public Schools.

But if you enter the pool, posted clearly on the walls, you can see signs that read "No lifeguard on duty."

That's because according to the Minnesota Department of Education, gym teachers are not required to be lifeguard certified.
So it begs the question -- is it safe?

"The unit is designed with student safety in mind," says Bergstrom.

The incident in the St. Louis Park where a 12-year-old boy drowned while at school has forced many school districts including Austin to examine their own policies regarding water safety.

For instance, the teacher student ratio that day was 30 to one.  In Austin, the teacher - student ratio is 14 to 1, meaning for every 14 students there is one instructor.

"Class sizes are 28 to 30 for a classroom so when they're doing the swimming unit, we bring in an additional person so that ratio drops down to a more manageable level," says Bergstrom.  The district has four gym teachers and typically two operate per lesson.

"It's so important to have supervision as well as be able to teach the kids and one person cannot teach and supervise at the same time," says Autumn Kappes.

Kappes is the program manager for Rochester Swim Club Orcas.  On average about 200 kids come through their program for swim lessons every year.
All of their instructors are licensed lifeguards and in their program, it's a stark contrast, at a 5 to 1 ratio for teacher - student lessons.
"It's crucial because you always have to have your eyes on those kids and you can't do that if you have more than 5," she says, "it only takes a few seconds for someone to do down to the bottom and drown."

A fear for any parent, whose child is under the care of another.  "It will always be safer and I will always feel safer if there is a lifeguard on duty," says Darci Guanella, a mother who's children take lessons.

"Anytime you talk about water safety, and the potential dangers of water, is 14 to 1 a safe number for water safety," asks Lee of Bergstrom.

"Obviously it would be great to have a number that is much less than that, but that's just not the reality we live in," he says, "one of the things often times happens, budgets get tighter and less monies is available."

Guanella recognizes with the challenges of a school budget, but says, "kids safety certainly in schools, should be a top priority."

"If it cost a little bit more to have more certification, in the long run, you can save a life," says Kappes.

Hoping that this tragedy will not only force schools, but the state as a whole to re-evaluate policies.
In the meantime,  Ellis will continue its classes and continue to make safety a top priority.
"It is an opportunity for a district, a building to take a look to see what we're doing and if we need to make any changes to make sure this event never happens again," says Bergstrom.

ABC 6 also checked with Rochester Public Schools where they have five pools with required swim as part of their curriculum.

While not required, in the five buildings where Rochester Public Schools has swimming pools, all but one, of the gym teachers are lifeguard or rescuer certified.


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