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Efforts underway to teach more of KC’s children to swim, reduce drowning risks

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans drown at higher rates than people in other groups.

The highest disparity is for black children ages 11 and 12, who are ten times more likely to drown than their peers.

That number is surprising for some people, like Linwood YMCA Aquatics Director Danielle Randle. She teaches kids from all races and backgrounds the importance of water safety.

"Because the water doesn't just point out one person, one ethnicity, it attacks everybody," Randle said. "Every kid may not pick up a basketball or play any other sports, but every child is going to experience coming to the pool. And I want to make sure that when they come to the pool that this is the safest experience that they have."

Research from the CDC and USA Swimming says there are several factors that may contribute to the higher rates of drowning among black children.

According to USA Swimming, the majority of white children can swim. Almost half of Hispanic children can swim. But only a little more than a third of black children can swim.

Lack of access, socioeconomic factors, lack of representation and the effects of segregation could be to blame for the increased drowning risk, according to the CDC.

Adrienne Walker Hoard is a black studies professor who learned how to swim in Jefferson City's segregated pools.

"I didn't realize until I got to high school that there was memorial pool there," Hoard said. "There was a whole other pool on the other side of town that I was not allowed to go into, and then it was like very weird, you know? It was like a disconnect because what I had looked at as being a positive experience I realized was a separate experience."

According to USA Swimming, if parent's don't swim, there's a high likelihood their children, of any background, won't have strong swimming skills either.

In 2017, KU awarded then-student Jesse Burbank with an Undergraduate Research Award to study the desegregation of the Swope Park swimming pool in Kansas City.

"The main question that I tried to answer was, 'Why did Kansas City fight so hard to keep the Swope Park swimming pool segregated when it had already desegregated all of its other city owned accommodations?" Burbank said.

In 1951, the NAACP sued Kansas City to integrate the Swope Park pool, which had lots of new features and amenities. The city claimed the pool was separate but equal and pointed to other pools where blacks could swim.

"It attempted to say it was a public safety issue," Burbank said. "If you desegregated a public swimming pool, there would be a riot. They continued to reference what they called the natural aversion to physical intimacy, and intimate environment like the swimming pool. That's just sort of coded language to keep races separate in a very intimate public space."

A US District Court judge ruled in favor of the NAACP and ordered Kansas City to integrate the Swope Park swimming pool. But during a lengthy appeals process, the city shut the pool down for several years.

Finally, the city lost and in 1954, the pool opened for everyone.

Decades later, Amber Strozier is making sure her kids know how to be safe in the water.

She's the principal at the Erma L. Williams Learning Center at Paseo Paptist and brought back a partnership between the school and the Linwood YMCA.

"I want our children to know that they can do anything that they possibly believe that they can do," Strozier said. "They belong in any room that they walk into, including the swimming pool. Swim lessons with the Linwood YMCA is now part of our core curriculum, meaning we offer it all year round."

She and others are working hard to bring swimming to everyone.

Inspired by his former coach and lifeguard, Skip Hill wants to bring a competitive club swim team, like the one he coaches in Olathe, to Kansas City's urban core.

The idea is that more swimming will lead to more water safety, fewer drownings and more opportunities in the long run.

"This will enable them to seek jobs in the aquatic industry, seek jobs in the scuba diving industry," he said. "Because if you're an avid swimmer, you go on to underwater construction. You can do microbiology. You can do marine biology. There's such an open field number of fields that will open up. I think we've got a chance."

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