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Let's teach our kids how to swim in school

Strategies to make swimming areas safer are being proposed after a recent tragedy took the lives of four members of one Hillsboro family in Hagg Lake, near Forest Grove.

I would propose a different approach. How about we make people less likely to drown everywhere? Let’s teach children to swim, thus protecting them in all water situations.

Drowning has led to more unintentional deaths for children ages 1-4 than any other cause except birth defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for those ages 1-14, behind motor vehicle wrecks, according to the CDC.

A similar tragedy was averted at the same location on Hagg Lake in 2012 when a good Samaritan happened by and helped to save 10 people from drowning — including one girl who was pulled from the bottom of the lake. One person among 11 who could swim? Let’s improve those numbers.

Swim lessons are very popular in community pools across the metro area, but the population is self-selected. Only those with the time and money can afford to send their children to these classes.

Sean Taylor, aquatics director at Gresham High School — which has a swimming pool — has a plan for getting Gresham elementary students into swim lessons. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, he’s run into money problems.

The only school that has been able to take advantage of the lessons is West Gresham Grade School, which can walk students to the pool. Other schools would have to pay for transportation, which they can’t afford. Obviously, he’s thought about Gresham schools, but other districts could model programs on his ideas.

Several years ago, Taylor met with some elementary school principals in the district because he knows teaching young children to swim is effective in preventing drowning.

“I grew up in schools that did this,” Taylor said. “My dad used to teach swimming, starting in 1966. He never identified a person who went through that program who drowned.”

Sharon Hoffmeister, superintendent of aquatics at the Tualatin Hills Parks & Recreation District, said her facility offers scholarships to get children into swim classes. No one is excluded from these programs.

As far as schools taking advantage of swim classes, Beaverton’s McKay Elementary School used to send classes over to the Tualatin Hills pool for lessons, but curriculum changes put an end to that. Hoffmeister sees big challenges for schools when it comes to providing lessons, because transportation costs are very expensive.

Taylor is willing to teach elementary school children in Gresham to swim if he can get support from the community to pay for the transportation costs.

There also is another possibility for reaching more children. Taylor got a call from an apartment manager in Gresham who was looking for someone to teach swimming to her residents. This would be another avenue to reach children and families who, for financial or societal reasons, don’t take advantage of swim lessons that are offered at local pools.

Gresham High School already teaches ninth-graders to swim during physical education classes. This works, but it reaches only a limited group and at a later age.

Hoffmeister pointed out that communities need to do a better job of getting water safety information out, especially to challenged neighborhoods. People are naive to the dangers of swimming or even wading in lakes and rivers.

Clearly, swimming lessons would help to decrease the likelihood of drowning, but also, people who know how to swim are able to help others in distress, or before they get into trouble. Parents could help children and vice versa. Swim lessons include water safety information, which could keep children and families from ever getting into dangerous situations.

Communities need to reinstate swim lessons in schools. Not only will this teach them a skill that can keep them fit for a lifetime, it will help keep them safe.

Tiffaney O’Dell is assistant chief of the central design desk for the Pamplin Media Group in Milwaukie.

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