By Chris Cox
Edited by Christina Elmore
Yolanda Goodman's youngest son never learned how to swim.
But now Peter Goodman, a freshman at C.A. Johnson High School, might have to hit the pool to get out of school if some South Carolina legislators get their way.
"If my sons were required, then we can't argue against it," said Goodman, who is the president of C.A. Johnson's Parent-Teacher Organization. "But I don't see it being something that needs to be a major requirement. It needs to be a choice."
Reps. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, and William Clyburn, D-Aiken, want South Carolina public school students to have two years of swimming instruction in order to graduate from high school.
Gilliard came up with the idea after an increased number of drowning deaths in 2009. According to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, 115 occurred in South Carolina that year, but the department says those numbers are not final. In 2008, 95 deaths were reported.
Nationwide, the numbers are especially alarming for African-Americans like the Goodmans. According to Safe Kids USA, a nonprofit organization that tries to eliminate preventable child injuries, black children ages 5 to 14 drown at a rate three times that of white children.
But Gilliard, also African-American, said his bill is not racially driven.
"It's a tragedy and has a mental impact on the parents and siblings," he said. "It's not a color thing. A life is a life is a life."
Gilliard proposes that all students receive two years of instruction if their school district – Richland 1 in Peter Goodman's case – has a public pool within 10 miles of its boundary. His bill excludes pools owned by churches and other religious organizations.
As a result, he and his classmates would likely get their swimming lessons at Drew Wellness Center, one of the Midlands' few indoor swimming pools. Most other public pools close in September and don't reopen until May.
But a representative of the center, who did not want to be identified because the center receives state funding, said he's never seen more than 40 or 50 people in the pool at a given time and that the pool is not rented out because of its high usage.
Goodman said she is concerned about having enough supervision.
"If you have a large number of students in the pool and you're not having enough lifeguard protection, that's going to put the kids in danger," she said.
Peter Goodman is even more concerned about the amount of time Gilliard expects students to spend in the water.
"That's foolish. It doesn't make much sense," he said. "That doesn't even equate to what's most important." Learning to swim could be accomplished over a number of weeks instead of years, he said.
McGee Moody, USC's swim and dive coach for the past three seasons, also thinks two years would be too much.
"I would probably go one or even just a semester," Moody said. "If you went Sept. 1 to Dec. 1, kept it off of finals weeks and kept it twice a week, you're going to learn how to swim."
Moody said he encourages the bill but has his share of questions too.
"I would support if it is feasible for the school system and if it is realistic. That's a big thing," Moody said. "If the pool is not owned by that high school, they're going to have to pay facility usage fees. Where is that money going to come from? How much time per week are we talking here?"
While his bill has yet to be assigned to a subcommittee, Gilliard helped pass a resolution in January making May 2011 "Water Safety Awareness Month," which encourages schools to spend at least one hour on safety instruction during the month.
"It was better than not doing nothing at all, and watch the summer come and go, and see another increase in drowning," Gilliard said.
It's unclear whether action will be taken on Gilliard's bill, and Rep. Phillip Owens, chairman of the Education and Public Works Committee, did not respond to multiple messages left with his office.
But Gilliard is still encouraged his bill will ultimately pass. He's received a bevy of support even though no other states in the Southeast require swimming classes in order to graduate, he said.
But it's Peter and his classmates that the bill will most affect. And right now, he doesn't support Gilliard's proposal.
"Do they not realize that most students are not meeting existing requirements toward graduation?" he asked. "Why add one more additional thing? It's not necessary."