South Carolina could become the first state in the nation to require swim classes for public schoolchildren.

A bill introduced last month by Rep. Wendell Gilliard (D-Charleston) calls for any state-funded school within 10 miles of a public pool to offer free swimming instruction to all students. Under AB 3030, students would be required to complete two years of swim education before graduating from high school.

“The intent was to try and do something to offset the rash of drownings we’d had in the previous couple of years,” Gilliard said. “There are a lot of scenarios where we have schools adjacent to or just a few miles from pools, so it’s almost ridiculous not to utilize those resources.”

Drowning is the fourth-leading cause of death among children statewide ages 0-17, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Two years ago, Gilliard proposed a similar bill in response to a spate of area drownings. That plan, however, failed to gain traction over concerns related to funding, transportation and available resources.

Gilliard now is hopeful that the second time will be a charm. Under the law, instruction would start early — kindergarten-age, he said — and online resources could be used to help standardize programming.

Though it’s believed Gilliard’s would be the first such statewide mandate, similar programs have been adopted at the city and county levels.

Jim Reiser, president of Swim Lessons University in Columbia, S.C., currently teaches a two-week course for second-graders in the Richland County School District. Funded by the district, it takes place throughout the school year, and combines pool and classroom learning.

“So much of drowning prevention is education,” Reiser said. “Even if they’re not strong swimmers, they’re capable of learning and understanding that they shouldn’t be around water without an adult present — things like that.”   

In 2001-03, officials in Lee County, Fla., launched an initiative that provided swim instruction and education to preschool-aged children and their parents in the federal Head Start program.

Adults received an hour’s worth of water-safety tips and information covering topics from supervision to barriers to rescue and CPR techniques. Though most were decidedly negative at first, the course quickly turned skeptics into believers, public officials said.

“By the end, they were hugging the instructors and asking why this wasn’t being offered in all schools, and why they hadn’t been offered it sooner,” said Diane Holm, public information officer for the Lee County Health Department and past president of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance.

The children learned how to hold their breath underwater and how to climb out of a pool, as well as introductory swimming skills.

The Lee County program ultimately came to an end when its grant funding ran out. But the local drowning rate declined significantly in the following years, which Holm attributed, at least in part, to the increased awareness. 

It’s a model that Gilliard hopes can be followed.

“There does need to be a greater role with parents because everything starts at home,” he added. “But doing it through the schools, I believe, will help bring those conversations into the home.”