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Commission penalizes swim club in Pennsylvania racism complaint

  • Story Highlights
  • State panel finds race was factor in banning minority children from swim club
  • Valley Swim Club ordered to pay monetary damages, has 30 days to appeal
  • Kids claim club members made racist comments to them
  • Club president claims safety and crowding led to cancellation
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(CNN) -- A state commission issued a finding of probable cause that racism was involved in the decision by a suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, swim club to revoke privileges of a largely minority day care center.

Some kids from the Creative Steps Day Care center say club members made racist remarks.

Some kids from the Creative Steps Day Care center say club members made racist remarks.

The Valley Swim Club canceled a contract for swimming privileges for the approximately 65 children from the Creative Steps day care center after a visit June 29.

Some black and Hispanic children said white club members made racist comments to them during that visit, asking why black children were there and raising concerns that "they might steal from us."

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, in its 33-page finding, details the incident. It notes that the swim club maintains that it canceled its relationship with the day care center because members were requesting that their membership fees be refunded and because of safety concerns "attendant with overcrowding of the shallow end of the pool by a large number of non-swimmers."

But the commission, in its finding, stated that the club "routinely has members at the facility in numbers that are equal in size or exceed the number of Creative Steps campers." The club has also hosted groups of similar size without raising safety concerns, the commission said.

As the group was swimming at the club, one of its members voiced concerns that "all of these black kids" might "do something to my child." When confronted by a Creative Steps official, the woman -- a teacher at a local school -- denied the comment but said she was concerned because one of the children "was a known thief" and had previously stolen a cell phone. The commission found no evidence that the child was ever accused of or disciplined for stealing at the school.

Other group members sent negative e-mails to club board members after the incident. One board member said in an e-mail, according to the commission, "I feel we were mislead (sic) with the type of camp this was. This camp is a city camp and it is run with tax payers money. This is not the type of camp that is going to bring any new members into the club."

The finding is "an invitation to sit down with our staff and have the parties settle their differences," commission Chairman Stephen Glassman said. "If they don't, it will go on to a public hearing."

Depending on the outcome of that process, the club could face damages for humiliation and embarrassment, as well as a civil penalty of up to $50,000, commission spokeswoman Shannon Powers said. The public hearing, she said, is held before a body of commissioners.

The commission enforces state human rights law, Powers said. It launched an investigation into the incident after being contacted by a number of advocacy organizations following media coverage of the story. Since then, she said, a number of complaints have been filed with the commission.

The commission noted in the finding that none of the club's 155 paid members this year was African-American and that last year there were "179 paid memberships, none of whom were African American."

In addition, the commission said that in 2009, the Valley Swim Club "made a concerted effort to expand the geographic range of its membership by engaging in a marketing campaign. ... The respondent efforts were mainly directed at areas with overwhelmingly caucasian populations. ... The respondent made no effort to direct such marketing efforts at areas with significant African-American populations."

Glassman said the swim club had 30 days to appeal the finding.

Joe Tucker, a lawyer for the club, said his client will do just that. "We believe this is wrong," he said.

"I believe the people at the PHRC are very good people, but they were put in a tough position. ... If the PHRC would have decided against the children or in favor of the club, they would have been painted with the same unfair and untrue racist brush that the Valley Swim Club was painted with."

The day care center had originally contracted to use the pool during the summer, but the club canceled the agreement and returned the day care center's $1,950 check without explanation. The club canceled contracts with two other day care centers because of safety and crowding, swim club director John Duesler said.

Those facilities have not protested the club's actions.

The issue was exacerbated when Duesler told two Philadelphia television stations that the children had changed "the complexion" and "atmosphere" of the club. The comment brought protesters outside the facility.

Duesler later said that safety and crowding, not racism, prompted the cancellation.

As the controversy gained national attention, the swim club asked the day care center to return. Center officials refused and said they would pursue a lawsuit.

All About Racism and BigotryPhiladelphia

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