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The head of a private suburban Philadelphia swim club on Friday defended its cancellation of the memberships of dozens of African American and Hispanic children, saying safety and not racism, was the reason.
The Creative Steps camp had arranged for 65 mostly black and Hispanic children to swim each Monday afternoon at the club this summer. But director Alethea Wright said that shortly after they arrived for their first visit, some children reported hearing racial comments, and the camp's $1,950 was refunded a few days later.
At the entrance to the club in the leafy suburb of Huntingdon Valley, John Duesler, president of the board of directors of The Valley Club, told reporters Friday afternoon that "We deeply regret this whole situation."
Duesler said the number of children in the shallow section of the pool, many of them unable to swim, convinced officials that there was a problem. "It was definitely an unsafe situation," he said.
The club's actions have prompted an investigation by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and made headlines across the country. Much of the attention has focused on an earlier statement by Duesler voicing concern that so many children would "change the complexion" or atmosphere of the club, which he acknowledged was "a terrible choice of words."
"It was never my intention to imply anything in terms of racial makeup," he said. Duesler said he heard no racial comments from members and that any such remarks did not represent the club's position.
Wright, however, said the club knew what size group to expect and had hosted a school group of a similar size a week earlier. She said the comments reported by children and the parents' actions after her group arrived told a different story.
"If they're open to membership, why were parents pulling their children out and standing there with their arms crossed?" she said.
Meanwhile, the director of another camp that also had its membership canceled said she believes the club's explanation that numbers and not ethnicity was the reason.
"It was definitely an overcrowding issue," said Joanne Rosenthal of Storybook Children's Center of northeast Philadelphia. "It was obviously more than they were used to dealing with."
Rosenthal said at least half of her 25-member group was made up of racial minorities, and their money was also returned after one visit. But she said she thought the group had been treated "extremely fairly."
"It's not a small pool, but two-thirds of it is deep water, which children are not allowed in unless they have passed a deep-water test, so really, only one-third can be used." Rosenthal said.
Storybook signed up with the private club because city pools were to be closed this summer because of budget cuts, but the nearby public pool did open after all and the children were swimming there, she said.
Wright said several institutions had offered to host the Creative Steps children at their pools for the summer, and she planned to talk to parents to find out where they wanted their children to go.
Meanwhile, the state commission has vowed to expedite an investigation after being inundated with calls from all over the country, according to spokeswoman Shannon Powers.
"It got bumped to the top of the priority list, so were devoting an extraordinary amount of resources to investigating it," she said. "It's a matter we would like to see resolved quickly."
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