DFL Rep. Clark says bill requiring swimming instruction in schools is "a civil rights issue"


A bill authored by Rep. Karen Clark, D-Minneapolis, would make Minnesota the first state in the country to require swimming instruction for public school students.

The bill comes on the heels of two recent incidents where Somali students drowned in school pools, but Clark says it's intended to address a problem that goes back decades.

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"The racial drowning disparity is a civil rights issue when you come right down to it," Clark tells us. "And one of the reasons African Americans drown is because swimming pools were closed to African American people for many decades. It's a legacy of drowning that's not okay, and we can do something about it."

Clark's bill would add this language to the state's physical educations standards, effective at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year (read the full text here):

The commissioner must include aquatics instruction in the standards for physical education in kindergarten through grade 12. A school site without a pool or without access to a pool within ten miles of the school site at least must provide the students with instruction on water safety, water safety rescue techniques, dry land strokes, kick practice, and buoyancy principles. A person providing aquatics instruction under this paragraph must possess a current certificate from the American Red Cross or YMCA of the U.S.A. lifeguard training program or be equivalently qualified. In addition, the person must be certified in standard first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Clark also cited the physical fitness benefits of her bill.

"Public health is very important to me, and swimming is very excellent exercise for youth and adults," Clark says. "We do know that kids who swim tend to do better in their classes."

The Minnesota House Education Policy Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill today. Clark says she thinks it has broad bipartisan support in the legislature, even if some school districts have cost concerns.

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"The teachers that I have talked with are very enthusiastic about it, but opposition may come from some of the school systems who think it may be difficult in terms of budget," Clark says. "We have an alternative in there for those who don't have easy access to pools. This is a life skill -- you have to be able to survive in a situation where you're over your head."

Nonetheless, since the bill was introduced relatively late in the session and doesn't yet have a companion in the Senate, Clark says it's more likely it'll be approved next session than this one.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, D-Minneapolis, is a co-author of Clark's bill and a longtime supporter of requiring swimming instruction for students. Reached for comment, she shared this anecdote about former DFL Speaker of the House Martin Sabo.

"We have a sailboat on Lake Calhoun, and we took him sailing with us, and he said he couldn't swim and we made him put a life preserver on," Kahn says. "That was like the first adult I had met who didn't know how to swim."

Kahn cited the two recent school drowning incidents as factors providing momentum to Clark's bill this session, but says she wished it wouldn't take incidents like that to spur legislative action.

"It's terrible it takes a tragedy to remind us to do this," Kahn says.

-- Follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter at @atrupar. Got a tip? Drop him a line at [email protected]