Recreation Commission Awaits “Christian’s Law” Ruling on Life Jackets

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

Governor Deval Patrick at the ceremony signing Christian's Law into effect  -- Image (c) CEF Foundation
Governor Deval Patrick at the ceremony signing Christian’s Law into effect — Image (c) CEF Foundation

Preparing for the coming summer season at Springs Brook Park could be even trickier this year now that Christian’s Law has been passed by the Massachusetts legislature.

The bill, signed into law last July—five years after the drowning death of a 4 year-old Stockbridge boy who was prohibited from wearing a life jacket at a day camp swimming facility—requires the state’s Department of Public Health to approve a system for municipal and recreational programs and camps to provide “Coast Guard-approved life jackets available to non-swimmers and at-risk swimmers.” The guidelines for how to implement Christian’s Law are anticipated soon, possibly close to opening day at Springs Brook Park, Recreation Department Director Amy Hamilton told the Recreation Commission on Wednesday night.

Recreation programs must determine each child’s swimming ability at the first swimming session in order to identify and classify non-swimmers and at-risk swimmers,” Hamilton read from the law’s guidelines.

“Where I see that impacting us is in things like Local Getaway: we take 40 middle school-age kids and go to Rockport to the beach for the day [or] we’ll go to Hopkinton to the lake there. We take [the kids] to so many outdoor venues with beaches, ponds. And each [session] it’s a different group of kids so each week we’d have to take each group of kids and [evaluate] them,” Hamilton said.

“We’re making a list of our field trips and making some back up plans for the days we’d be at the beach—but there are so many of them. You want the kids to be out, you want them to be at the beaches and the ponds and lakes. To my mind, these are some of the better activities—they can go to Laser Tag all year round. It’s nice in the summer to get the kids outdoors and doing some of these real, outdoor activities,” Hamilton continued.

“I see it [also] possibly impacting outside groups coming to Springs Brook. I think the onus would be on the groups themselves to evaluate their kids before they get to the park but that’s tough and it’s tough logistically [once they get there] as well,” Hamilton added.

The question of who would provide the life jackets—the parents, the group coming to the park or the park itself—is as yet unanswered.

“So a law is going to come out and we’re going to have to react to it,” summarized Recreation Commission Chair Ron Richter. “We’re going to have to set up policies and procedures. The other choice [besides limiting water activities or continually assessing swimming ability] is to put every kid in a life preserver.

“The groups of younger kids we bring down from Summer Adventures come down only for swim lessons.  They’re always with an adult swim instructor and an aid—they’re never on their own, playing around in the water.”

And, Hamilton added, “If you put a life jacket on the kids who are non-swimmers, how are they ever going to learn how to swim? I hope that in this case, we’ll be exempt. We’ll have to wait and see how that goes. It’s a law. We’re just waiting for the guidance about how to implement it. It could be very last-minute.”

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