Swim club's bankruptcy is unsettling

Althea Wright of Creative Steps (center) spoke at a Valley Swim Club news conference this summer. With her were attorneys Carolyn Nichols (left) and Gabriel Levin. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)


Facing mounting debts and legal bills and drowning in bad publicity, the Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley plans to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, perhaps marking the end to an ugly racial incident that was poorly handled and gained national attention.
In the end, the swim club probably has little choice but to file for bankruptcy to avoid saddling members with what could be hefty legal judgments. But it would have been nice to see the entire saga handled better from the start.
The controversy began after a Philadelphia summer camp contracted with the pool board to have dozens of black and Hispanic children swim for a set time each week.
But tensions flared when the minority kids made their first visit to the pool. Some members made racial remarks and removed their own children from the pool. One asked: “What are all those black kids doing here?”
After the kids left, the fee the camp paid to use the pool was refunded, and the swimming agreement was terminated.
A media firestorm ensued.
Rather than hunker down and find lawyers, both sides would have been better served if they had found a way to turn the incident into a teaching moment on race relations — especially as the country was tuned in.
In hindsight, it seems some arrangement could have been made to allow the kids to use the pool. That could have saved the club from financial ruin and avoided having its members painted as racists.
However, all of the club’s financial problems are not tied to the racial incident. Club president John Duesler said the club was in financial trouble and had struggled to stay afloat for the past decade.
Duesler won’t say if the legal bills or bad publicity prompted the board to vote last week to throw in the towel.
If the bankruptcy goes forward as expected, a judge would have to decide if the black and Latino children mistreated during the pool outing last summer will get any legal redress.
The club faces at least one civil lawsuit and possibly more that could carry steep penalties. The U.S. Justice Department is also investigating.
Club officials vehemently denied any bias and claimed they had safety concerns regarding the number of camp kids in the pool. But the state Human Relations Commission concluded otherwise and ordered the club to pay a $50,000 fine to the state.
The commission’s investigation also revealed that the Valley Club had no African American members, and that recruitment drives targeted mostly white populations.
Shutting the club and draining the swimming pool may end the legal and financial troubles. But that leaves a pool where no one will swim. Also left unresolved is the bigger issue of racism that was on display that ugly summer day.