Image: Demonstrator at swim club
Mark Stehle  /  AP
Kelbin Carolina demonstrates Thursday in front of the Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., in response to allegations that the swim club blocked a group of minority children from joining weekly swims at the pool.
msnbc.com news services
updated 7/10/2009 11:49:13 AM ET 2009-07-10T15:49:13

The head of a suburban Philadelphia swim club says safety, not racism, was the reason for the cancellation of the memberships of dozens of minority children.

John Duesler spoke to reporters Friday afternoon at the entrance to The Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley.

Duesler said there were too many children for the size of the pool and the available number of lifeguards. He said that it was "an unsafe situation" and that officials deeply regret the situation.

State officials said they will investigate accusations of racial discrimination against the swim club.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission will immediately open an investigation into the actions of The Valley Club in the leafy suburb of Huntingdon Valley, chairman Stephen A. Glassman said.

"The rule of law in Pennsylvania is equal opportunity for all, regardless of race," Glassman said Thursday in a written statement released by his office.

"Allegedly, this group was denied the use of a pool based on their race," Glassman said. "If the allegations prove to be true, this is illegal discrimination in Pennsylvania."

Alethea Wright, director of Creative Steps, a summer camp for minority children, said the organization paid for weekly swim time at the pool. But during a trip there June 29 some of the children said they heard people asking what "black kids" were doing at the club, Wright said.

In its statement, the swim club called its membership diverse and said any comments that may or may not have been made by members are not shared by its board.

Some heard racist comments
Creative Steps, located in northeast Philadelphia, had contracted for the 65 children at the day camp to go each Monday afternoon, Wright said. But shortly after they arrived June 29, she said, some black and Hispanic children reported hearing racial comments.

"A couple of the children ran down saying, 'Miss Wright, Miss Wright, they're up there saying, 'What are those black kids doing here?'"

Wright said she went to talk to a group of members at the top of the hill and heard one woman say she would see to it that the group, made of up of children in kindergarten through seventh grade, did not return.

"Some of the members began pulling their children out of the pool and were standing around with their arms folded," Wright said. "Only three members left their children in the pool with us."

Several days later, the club refunded the camp's payment without explanation, said Wright, who added that some parents are "weighing their options" on legal action.

Senator issues statement
Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., issued a statement calling the allegations "extremely disturbing" and said he was looking into the matter.

Video: Swim club cites safety concern Club president John Duesler told Philadelphia television station WTXF that several club members complained because the children "fundamentally changed the atmosphere" at the pool, but that the complaints didn't involve race.

The club's telephone message system was full and a message could not be left there by The Associated Press; Duesler did not return calls to his home.

A club member told a newspaper that she understood the problem was the size of the group, not race. But Wright rejected that explanation, saying the club covers 10 acres with a "nice-sized" pool and a separate pool for younger children. The board, she said, knew that her group included 65 children, and none of them had misbehaved.

"We were not welcome, once the members saw who we were," she said.

Wright said the children were upset, and that she was looking for a psychologist to speak to them next week. Some have asked her whether they are "too dark" to swim in the pool, she said.

"I'm not going to validate this behavior by adults," Wright said. "It's unacceptable. This is preposterous, and I won't stand for it."

Private school lends a hand
Girard College, a private Philadelphia boarding school for children who live in low-income and single-parent homes, has offered to host the children for the summer, and a meeting was scheduled later Thursday to work out the details.  

"We had to help," admissions director Tamara Leclair told WCAU, a NBC affiliate station. "Every child deserves an incredible summer camp experience."

The school already serves 500 campers but felt it could squeeze in 65 more, especially since its pool is unused on the day the Creative Steps group had planned to swim at Valley Swim Club.

In another gesture of goodwill, the owners of Gumdrops & Sprinkles treated the kids to a free day of candy and ice cream-making, WCAU reported.

NBC affiliate WCAU and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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