Water safety group calls for mandatory education in Illinois schools after recent Lake Michigan drownings

After a series of drownings in Lake Michigan over the past several days, a water safety group is renewing its calls to make water safety education mandatory in Illinois schools.

It was a deadly Labor Day holiday weekend on Lake Michigan, capped early Tuesday morning by a drowning about a mile off of 31st St. Beach. The Coast Guard said a man and a woman jumped off a boat to go swimming. She got back in the boat, but the man disappeared under the water.

Helicopters and boats crisscrossed the area for several hours before giving up the search.

Dave Benjamin, director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, said there are a number of factors that play into drownings.

"We can have waves and dangerous currents that impact a person's swimming ability. We can have cold water temperatures. So there's lots of hazards with open water," he said.

Benjamin said so far this year, 37 people have drowned in all of Lake Michigan, compared to 39 at the same time last year. But that number has been climbing rapidly.

On Monday, a 14-year-old boy now identified as K'Mari Mack drowned while swimming with his family at the Jerose Park Beach in East Chicago.

Earlier in the weekend a 27-year-old man swimming at the 49th Street Beach was pulled from the water and later died at University of Chicago Hospital.

Additionally, a 46-year-old woman was rescued from Montrose Harbor. She's now listed in critical condition.

"The startling statistic, about 66% of all fatal drowning victims knew how to swim," Benjamin said. "So that should be an alarm bell saying, hey, we're missing something here."

What they're missing, Benjamin said, is water safety education, which is different from learning how to swim. His group has proposed a bill In Springfield that would make water safety education mandatory from kindergarten through sixth grade at all Illinois public schools.

"Everybody plays in water, and very few people know of drowning survival strategy, so that should be the alarm bell ringing that we really do need to have a national water safety school curriculum, and then each state can tailor it to their own specific hazards," said Benjamin.

The advocates hope to get the bill passed in the fall veto session, which is especially important as public beaches will be without lifeguards, even as warm fall weather creates inviting conditions to swim.