The city of Houston’s Parks and Recreation Department is legally able to hire 15-year-olds to serve as lifeguards — a move that could erase racial and wealth disparities in access to pools first brought to the city’s attention by the Houston Landing last month. They’re just not willing to. 

Maggie Gordon, columnist for the Houston Landing

Last week, I reported that households located in neighborhoods where the city of Houston opened public pools earn 22 percent more than in neighborhoods where the pools remain closed. Residents who live near open pools are also significantly more likely to be white, my analysis showed. 

To fix this issue, I suggested taking a page from the city of Austin’s playbook: While Houston hired 130 lifeguards this year, Austin brought on 1,121 — including hundreds of 15-year-olds. As a result, while Houston continues to suffer a critical lifeguard shortage, which affects a disproportionate number of Black and brown families suffering through one of our city’s hottest summers on record, Austin’s pools are open at full capacity. 

The city’s parks and recreation department, which oversees the pools, contends that the closures are due to a local lifeguard shortage that reflects a national trend. In Houston, the department says, the lack of lifeguards is largely caused by the rigorous battery of tests administered to lifeguard candidates. 

Heat Week

A day after Houston Landing published my findings about the unequal access to city pools caused by the shortage, the city’s Human Resources Director Jane Cheeks reported her own findings to City Council Member Letitia Plummer (At-Large District 4). According to the city’s HR department, there are “no citywide policies that would preclude hiring a 15-year-old as a lifeguard.”

Unbeknownst to both Plummer and me, we had been asking the same questions at roughly the same time. As often happens, the elected official received more answers than the journalist. 

After learning it was possible, Plummer asked herself a new question: “Where do we go from here — now that we know we can do it?” 

She went to the parks department, where her hopes were dashed when she was told last week the department’s official recommendation is not to hire 15-year-olds. 

When I called the department this week to verify Plummer’s retelling, I received an emailed statement in response. “Our aquatics personnel feels that a recommendation to staff our pools with 15-year-olds adds another layer of risk,” the statement reads. “There is a great deal of maturation that happens in one year.”

The statement concludes: “We strongly recommend not lowering the age to 15.”

Respectfully, I disagree. 

When I first spoke with Houston’s Director of Parks & Recreation Kenneth Allen last month, Allen spent several minutes detailing the intense hiring process lifeguard applicants undergo, including swim tests, vision tests and hearing tests.

“That water test is pretty stringent,” Allen told me. “You have to swim 300 yards using multiple swimming disciplines. You have to retrieve a 10-pound weight from the bottom of the pool. And you have to tread water for two minutes without using your hands.”

He said himself that he trusts the test to weed out unqualified candidates. “We just want to hire people that can save lives if necessary, and that’s why the requirement is so strong,” he said.

So if this requirement is able to determine who is truly equipped to dive into the water in a life-or-death situation, why don’t we trust it to be applied to 15-year-olds?

If they don’t pass, they don’t pass. But if even a few do, that could bring Houston closer to opening all our pools, which should be a signature issue in this blazing-hot city. 

“If we know for sure that there are areas in the city of Houston where there are Black and brown children that do not have access to a pool in the summer, what are we doing to those kids? And where can we be flexible?” Plummer asks. 

Maybe another layer of interviews, she suggests. Or a trial process. “Something we can do to improve the situation versus saying, ‘We don’t believe 15-year-olds can be lifeguards.’”

Adding lifeguards to increase equity is also a pressing safety issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black children between the ages of 10 and 14 are 7.6 times more likely to drown in a pool than white children. 

It’s a stark statistic that cannot be divorced from the racist history of public pool access, which has created a generational ripple effect. Now that city officials have been made aware of these local disparities through the Landing’s reporting, the city owes its residents a concerted effort to bridge the remaining equity gaps.

“I know we heard pools were closed, but to see the breakdown of the districts is really pretty staggering,” Plummer told me, adding that she does not believe the inequality of pool closures was intentional. “I believe that was an oversight. And now that we know there’s no law that is preventing us from fixing this, we just have to find a way to make it happen. And that’s where I am right now: How do we make that happen?”

Plummer’s next step, she says, is to talk to Mayor Sylvester Turner. I expect that once again, the elected official will receive more answers than the journalist. I am, after all, still awaiting a response from the mayor’s office when I asked this exact question. 

It’s too late to add more staff for this summer — especially 15-year-olds who are about to start a new school year. But the parks department tells me it will post its job listings in January. So officials — Mayor Turner included — have more than four months to come up with a thoughtful approach to expand the city’s lifeguard corps and erase this inexcusable inequity. 

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Maggie Gordon is a columnist who has worked at newspapers across the country, including the Stamford Advocate and the Houston Chronicle. She has covered everything from the hedge fund industry and education...