Louisiana Drownings Cause Pain, Concern

An African American family in Louisiana is mourning the deaths of 6 teenagers who drowned this week. Neither the teens nor their adult relatives could swim. Carol Irwin of USA Swimming, the body that governs the sport, discusses her recent research that found an estimated 70 percent of Black children and almost 60 percent of Hispanic children have little or no swimming skills.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next, we turn to an all too common summer news story. It's known as tragic for being common. We're talking about the drowning deaths of six teens in Shreveport, Louisiana on Monday. A gathering in a city park along the Red River took an awful turn when one young person waded into a shallow part of the river but suddenly fell into deep water. Six teens went to help. Only one made it back to the riverbank.

This is Mayor Cedric Glover recounting the victim's names.

Mayor CEDRIC GLOVER (Democrat, Shreveport, Louisiana): Takeitha Warner, 13-year-old black female; JaMarcus Warner, 14-year-old black male; JaTavious Warner, a 17-year-old black male; LaDairus Stewart, a 17-year-old black male; Litrelle Stewart, an 18-year-old black male; and Latevin Stewart, a 15-year-old black male.

MARTIN: Now, as you just heard, all of the victims were African-American youth. Now only recently we spoke with Olympic Gold Medal winner Cullen Jones about his efforts to get more minority kids interested in swimming.

National figures show 69 percent of black children and 58 percent of Hispanic kids either have low or no swimming skills, and that's a far larger number than white kids. And black children aged five to 14 are three times more likely to drown than white children of the same age.

Now as weve said, it's long been known that minority kids are less likely to swim well or at all, but it is not entirely clear why. So last year, USA Swimming funded a survey to try answer that question. Carol Irwin was the principal researcher. She's an assistant professor of health sport sciences and she joins us now from member station WKNO in Memphis. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Professor CAROL IRWIN (Department of Health and Sport Sciences, University of Memphis): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: When you heard this latest story, having just completed this survey, I'm wondering what went through your mind.

Prof. IRWIN: Well, what went through my mind was that it's just a horrible tragedy. It's heartbreaking for those families, especially watching the whole thing play out in front of them. But it's something that's so preventable, too. It just broke my heart.

MARTIN: Weve cited figures earlier from the Centers for Disease Control which documents, A, this terrible number of drowning deaths involving minority kids, but also the disparity. And what was the aim of your research study? What gaps were you trying to fill?

Prof. IRWIN: The aim of our research was to see which variables are more predictor type variables which might eventually help to decrease or eliminate fatal and non-fatal drowning rates for all children, but specifically, for the high rates that we find in minority population. And we also did check to see what swimming ability levels were as well.

MARTIN: The study finds that African-American boys reported significantly higher swim ability or comfort in the pool and less fear of drowning than did African-American girls. And, in fact, African-American female respondents were significantly less skilled or comfortable in the pool than all other races of female respondents. Any idea why that might be?

Prof. IRWIN: I just feel so bad for African-American girls. They, first of all, historically, they have double jeopardy because the access issue, in regards to municipalities building pools in the late 1800s, women were not allowed to swim then, whether they were white, rich, poor or black. So later on, when racial division happened and women - white women were allowed to swim, again, African-American females were barred again from swimming. So they have experienced double jeopardy.

Plus, there is something that we learned about in the focus groups, it is the hair issue. And African-American girls, adolescent girls specifically, spend a lot of time and money on their hair and that is a big barrier.

MARTIN: Hmm. Again, on the variables that were found to decrease the chance that a child wouldve been an at risk swimmer, the child's familiarity with highly competitive swimmer.

Prof. IRWIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Interesting. Now what does mean? Does that mean somebody like a Cullen Jones, a visible figure in the sport or does it mean knowing someone, a neighbor or somebody else personally connected to the sport? Any idea?

Prof. IRWIN: I think it's both. I think a role model can emerge on a national level or it can also emerge as a neighbor or, you know, the local high school athlete that wins state or moves on to some sort of national level. So I think it can be both. And to be honest with you, I think some of our research showed that it was a mother or a father, you know, that was a good swimmer, a swimmer that could swim well. So I think it can - the role model can happen on many different levels.

MARTIN: Any final thoughts, Carol Irwin, about what would make this situation different? I sure hate to think that next summer we'll be back having the same conversation.

Prof. IRWIN: I dont want that either. But...

MARTIN: Any other ideas about what would matter?

Prof. IRWIN: We asked them, what were the solutions? And they targeted a testimonial type of source-based marketing where a person from their neighborhood needs to educate the others in that neighborhood. So we believe a more inside person that's prominent in the neighborhood needs to step up and this needs to become something that they advocate.

MARTIN: Can you swim?

Prof. IRWIN: Yes. And I was a lifeguard and I was a swim instructor back in the day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, good for you, I'm glad to hear it.

Carol Irwin was principal investigator of a University of Memphis study titled "Constraints Impacting Minority Swimming Participation." She was kind enough to join us from Memphis. Carol Irwin, thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. IRWIN: Oh, thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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