What I Learned From My Son Drowning at a Swim School

I never imagined I would become a cautionary tale.

I was the overprotective parent that annoyed others. I wouldn’t go to playdates at homes that had a swimming pool. The only way I would get a swimming pool was if it had a weight baring pool cover. We kept the key to it locked in a safe. We also had a pressure sensitive pool pump installed to make sure no child became suctioned to a pool drain. I wouldn’t even take my two sons swimming on my own. There always had to be another adult by my side, one set of eyes for each boy.  

I enrolled my boys in swim lessons at Love to Swim School, owned by Mary Reilly-Magee and Don Magee, in hopes of giving them lifesaving skills. I never would have believed this would lead to my youngest son’s death.

Swim Schools are an unregulated, for-profit industry.

After my son drowned at Love to Swim School on February 10, 2018, I learned there are absolutely no safety regulations for swim schools in Texas, NONE! Swim schools are not required to certify their employees in CPR or provide lifeguards.  There is no minimum training an employee has to have to work with children who can’t swim in the water. The person teaching a child to swim doesn’t even have to know how to swim! The only sort of regulations regarding swim schools is the cleanliness of the water in the pools…that’s all!

Over the last 10 years, swim schools have become a popular and HIGHLY PROFITABLE industry across the nation.

Of course, kids need swim lessons. It provides a vital life skill that is greatly needed. Just like any sort of business though, you have some who care more for profit than safety. Since it is an unregulated industry and implementing leading national aquatic expert’s recommendations is costly, know that you the parent, need to ask hard questions and ask to see actual proof of what is being claimed.  

I asked questions many times and thought I had found a safe place for my children to take swim lessons at. I had no clue it was actually an extremely dangerous business creating the illusion of safety to parents.

It turns out I didn’t know the correct questions to ask or know the warning signs to look for. I hope Mitchell’s tragedy will help families find a safe swim school for their children. The following safety questions/guidelines are based on information from a national aquatic safety expert, Dr. John Fletemeyer. When looking for a swim school, ask these questions, listen carefully to their answers, and see if they are dancing around a straight answer.

Are there certified lifeguards on duty, in an elevated position, during swim lessons?

This sounds like a no brainer but sadly, most swim schools do not use lifeguards during swim lessons. Love to Swim School did not employ a lifeguard position at the time of Mitchell’s drowning. I thought those in charge of my child’s safety were certified, lifeguards. Turns out they were “water watchers.” Which equals to absolutely nothing!  

Don’t assume like I did, ask! Also, ask if the certified lifeguards are in dual positions. Meaning are they acting as a swim coach or manager on duty while being considered a lifeguard? National aquatic safety experts state that lifeguards should have no other role while on lifeguard duty. They also recommend the lifeguards be in an elevated position to help cut down on the glare of the water and help with visibility.

It is very expensive to certify and train lifeguards, which is why most for-profit swim schools do not use them during swim lessons. Since Mitchell’s drowning and talking to swim school, looking for a safe place to take our other son, we have heard many excuses as to why lifeguards are not needed.  

  • “Lifeguards are lazy and ineffective.”
  • “It doesn’t pertain to us, we don’t have deep water.”
  • “We don’t need lifeguards because parents are here and watching.”

If a swim school starts throwing out excuses for not having lifeguards on duty, run!  There is no real excuse for not having lifeguards other than it saves money and after all, they are in the business of making money. Those swim schools are putting profit over children’s safety and trying to convince you it is for a reason other than financially.  

What certifications do the swim instructors have?

All swim schools brag about their certification program for their instructors. That’s how they make themselves sound like experts…the best. They will talk about how many hours it takes to get their certification and how rigorous the program is. The big question is what actually are those certifications and what credentialing source is behind it?

Most swim schools have an in-house certification program. This means that the program is created and run by that business. The reason this isn’t a good thing is that there is no oversight of the program by individuals who do not have a financial interest in the company. There is no one besides the business to say that it is a safe and sound training/certification program. There is no oversight into the quality and consistency of the training. There is no proof that those trained are competent individuals. I can certify my dog to be a swim coach with my own program but that doesn’t mean anything. In-house certification has absolutely no meaning outside of that company. It’s worth is zero.

Parents should look for certification from an independent, outside source like the American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA). This provides consistency and a standard to the training that was received. With this sort of certification, you as a parent know national standards were met during the training. The trainers providing the certification were certified to teach coaches techniques and safety precautions.   

Other training/certifications to look for are CPR training by an outside source like the Red Cross and Water Safety Instructor certification (WSI). It seems common sense to expect these certifications but they are time intensive and expensive to obtain, which is why many for-profit swim schools do not require them.

What are their class sizes and are they separated age appropriately?

Swim schools should have class sizes of no more than 4 students per instructor. It is also important that the classes are separated age appropriately. Big kids should always be kept separate from younger, weaker swimmers.

Be wary of grooming behaviors that affect your perception.

There is a reason why grooming is used by institutions, governments, businesses, and abusers…..IT WORKS!!!! It is the for-profit swim school’s job to sell you on why they are the best, safest. Otherwise, they would not have customers and go out of business.  

Is the swim school making excuses or reasonings behind not following national aquatic safety recommendations or are they listening and addressing your concerns? Are they constantly using catchy phrases like safety first, we are the safest, we take safety seriously but not showing actual documentation like credentialed certification or certified lifeguards?

They know what parents want to hear, they speak our language.  Of course, we want to hear our kids are at the safest place ever! But saying doesn’t equate to reality. That’s what happened to us. We heard it over and over again. Heard them talking about all their training and how they take safety seriously. It made us believe that an unsafe environment was the safest in town. Grooming had us misplace our trust and our most precious thing, our child, into very bad hands.  

Don’t settle for words, demand proof! One swim school touted how they strive for 100% CPR certification. When we asked for documents, it turned out they only had 60% of their staff CPR certified. Don’t blindly trust your child’s safety based on words, always ask for evidence.

It’s hard to find a swim school that follows aquatics safety recommendations, so now what?

It is hard to find a for-profit swim school that invests in lifeguards and credentialed certified training. A good place to look is non-profit swim organizations like the YMCA. If that is not feasible, start requesting higher standards from your local for-profit swim schools. Demand that they employ certified lifeguards during swim lessons. Let them know you will only go there if the swim coaches are certified by a credentialed source, not an in house program.  

Swim schools want your business. They need your business. When parents start demanding higher safety standards, the companies will comply or face going out of business. It is up to us, as parents, to hold these companies to the high standard we expect when trusting our children’s lives with them.

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