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Drowning is now bad, report suggests

July 14, 2010

One of the many horrible child-related stories to appear in recent weeks is this one about 12-year-old Nicole Suriel, who drowned during a school field trip to Long Island. The tragedy quickly became an angry controversy when it was discovered that permission slips hadn’t been gathered properly, and teachers at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering in Harlem had ignored signs warning that no life guard was on duty, and that the beach was closed to swimmers. Teachers allowed students to swim anyway, and in the wake of the death parental rage was such that the school’s principal was angrily confronted at Suriel’s funeral. Because there’s no funeral like the funeral of a sixth-grader featuring screaming and accusations.

Now a report from the New York Education Department reveals that letting kids without permission to even be on the trip swim at closed beaches without a lifeguard on hand is a bad idea.

“Nicole Suriel’s death was a tragedy,” the report concluded. “Certainly Columbia Secondary School personnel did not intend to cause her harm. Nevertheless, there was a lack of adequate planning by the principal and the assistant principal, a failure to provide a sufficient number of adults to supervise the children at the beach and poor judgment by the teacher in charge who either failed to realize that there were no lifeguards on duty or failed to recognize the additional danger presented by their absence.”

Parents have every right to be angry, and in the wake of this horrible death, it might be better that they have a place to focus their grief and horror–better for them, not so great for the principal and vice-principal, who, rightly or wrongly, should probably think about going back to grad school to get those culinary degrees they’ve always daydreamed about. But when I read this story, I instantly thought of the trip my son’s kindergarten class took the the New England Aquarium at the end of the year. There were permission slips, and I signed one. But what if my son had been, say, abducted during that trip? The New England Aquarium is, year-round, a place of unmitigated mayhem, noise and confusion, and it’s easy to imagine such a thing happening. There could be an investigation that showed that there were three adults to supervise 20 kids, and could someone have been blamed? Of course. You can always blame someone if you really need to, and if someone’s made a mistake, it’s all the easier, even if the mistake has nothing to do with the tragedy.

But if each and every parent of a student in Suriel’s class had gotten a slip, would they all have signed? There would have been no reason not to. In my experience, most parents, with a permission slip in front of them, are more worried about not getting it in on time than they are about the particulars of the trip. We tend to trust educators, teachers, daycare workers, babysitters, family members. The fact is that being a parent means sending your kids off–innumerable times, under innumerable circumstances–into the world and hoping for the best. Hell, “hoping for the best” describes at least half of parenting. Most of the time things work out fine. The risks are not only statistically reasonable, but necessary in the endeavor to guide our children into personhood. Sometimes things don’t work out. This is one of those times, and whatever mistakes were made, however many thing you can point to that might have prevented this awful thing, no one is really to blame.

UPDATE: Turns out that principal got tenure right after the drowning, so I guess his family can stop comparison shopping on toques.

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