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Most Child Drownings in Texas Occur Among Children of Color

Filipa Rodrigues for KUT
A lifeguard sits on stand at the Northwest Park swimming pool in Austin.

The triple-digit summer heat typically leads more Central Texans towards pools and lakes to cool off. Unfortunately, it also raises the risk of drownings. Seventy-three children drowned in Texas last year. And this year is looking just as bad – so far 44 kids have drowned — most of whom were children of color.

At Deep Eddy Pool, it's not just kids enjoying a splash in the cool waters. People of all ages are enjoying the relief from the heat in Texas’ oldest pool, but not all races. There are very few people of color, some may argue, that's in part the legacy of segregation, a legacy that's been hard to eradicate since Austin pools integrated in 1963.

Mary Blackstock is 88 years old, and she's the first Austin swimming coach ever to teach children of color how to swim.

“I did that,” she says. “I got them in there, I got them in the pool and they loved it! They'd never been in the pool before.”

That was in the 1970s at East Austin's Givens Pool.

Blackstock says she quickly faced opposition.

At the time, the Red Cross used to run Austin's swimming programs, and, on the first day of coaching, Blackstock got a call that the program was cancelled because she was getting the kids into the pool for free.

A few days later, she decided to pay for them herself.

“Red Cross called and said you gotta cut this out,” she says. “And I said, ‘Why?’ and she said [it was] because the kids are swimming in cut-off jeans and you gotta have a swim suit to swim in that pool.”

Through a network of friends, the kids were provided with swim suits and, finally, the calls stopped.

Blackstock was able to coach until the 90's, but she still makes it out to the pool when she can. In the past 20 years since she stopped coaching, she says, she's noticed there are still few concerted efforts in Texas specifically targeting children of color for swim lessons.

According to the Department of Family and Protective Services, nearly two-thirds of the children who drowned last year were children of color. Nineteen percent of drowning fatalities were African-American children, 27 percent were Hispanic, 3 percent were Asian and 15 percent of children who drowned were classified as "other." Anglo children for 36 percent of cases of child drowning victims.

Three years of age was the most reported age last year, as is the case this year. 

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department offers swimming lessons for around $60 for a two-week course.

The city also partnered with the Austin American-Statesman and the YMCA of Austin to offer free swimming lessons to children in East Austin through the Swim Safe program

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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