Was Sweet 16 splash party at swim club ruined because of racism or rowdiness?

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Partygoers at Sweet 16 splash party at Drexel Swim Club.

A Sweet 16 party at the Drexel Swim Club in Broomall this month turned out to be anything but that: Tensions rose, police were summoned and swimsuit-clad teenagers were ordered out.

Now, there are accusations of misconduct on both sides as well as allegations of racist treatment by the club.

It has been ugly. Antagonism surrounding the dispute doesn’t show any signs of letting up as signatures mount on a Change.org petition with the headline, “Racism is never okay.”  At last count, it had more than 10,000 signers.

The incident, first reported on Philadelphia Magazine’s website, reminded me of so many other clashes over the years involving swimming pools and allegations of racism after African American teenagers were ordered out of mostly white suburban swim clubs. But was this really a case of black and white? Poor planning? Or teenagers  acting as kids will do at parties?

I was curious, so I drove to bucolic Broomall on Wednesday.

People who identified themselves as pool board members declined to speak on the record. They did allow me to walk around the club. Most of the swimmers were white, but people of various hues appeared to be enjoying themselves. Several I spoke with told me they weren’t there on Aug. 4, when the incident allegedly occurred, but were quick to vouch for the diversity of the swim club and how well members of various backgrounds typically get along.

“We are a lesbian couple with eight kids — one Puerto Rican, one white and six black,” said Susan Jackson, an emergency room nurse at Temple University Hospital. She is white, her wife is black.  Club-goers “are very accepting,” she said.

But that’s not how Nakia “Kay” Dawkins described the experience she had at the swim club. Dawkins, 40, an African American entrepreneur who lives in West Philly, had been a member for only a short time before deciding to host her daughter’s party there on Aug. 4.

Camera icon Nakia Dawkins
Party invitation circulated on social media for Sweet 16 party at Drexel Swim Club.

Dawkins alleges she initially got conflicting information about whether she could have a professional DJ for the party, but later was told it was OK.

On the afternoon of the party, which her daughter had advertised on social media, the DJ set up. Dawkins and her sister decorated tables with a special cake, fruit kebabs, cupcakes, jars of candy, and bubble gum but couldn’t help notice that the swim club was more crowded than what she said she’d been led to believe it would be.

Soon, guests arrived and Dawkins’ daughter, Diamonique Shuler, made a grand entrance, dancing with her boyfriend, Tamir Dickerson, to the delight of her guests. It didn’t take long before regulars at the pool started complaining about the volume of the music and the profane lyrics in some of the rap songs.  Both sides agree that repeated requests were made to lower the music. At one point, someone reportedly pulled the DJ’s plug from a wall to stop it.

“This resulted in a verbal argument between the group and staff of the swim club,” according to a  report filed by Marple Township Police Officer Brian Niedelman, who estimated that between 50 to 75 juveniles were at the party.

It sounds chaotic.

“They were doing, like, the twerking, and you know they were in very skimpy bathing suits, carrying on, jumping up and down and very loud,” said Carole Morgan, a white club member whose yard backs up to the pool.

Their partying irked many of the regular members, who began to leave.

“One lady said, ‘Well, where the f— did they come from?’” Dawkins recalled. “And then one of the staff members at Drexel … said, ‘Youse don’t belong here.’ She said, ‘Because of you, all of my members are leaving. They paid their f—ing money to be here.’ I said, ‘I paid my money too. And I’m also a member.’”

Nicole Paolone, 36, a restaurant manager, was one of the members who left the club.

“When they started playing that HORRIBLE music I had to pull my children out,” she wrote in an email. “All those teenagers did was twerk, take selfies and curse up a storm. …”

Dawkins eventually agreed to leave but first demanded that the club refund the $200 she had paid toward her membership, which it did. By then, her daughter was in tears and what could have been a beautiful experience for the dance major at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts had turned into a huge mess.

Clearly mistakes were made. The party really needed to be somewhere other than the entrance to the swim club. That way, the teens could dance and be silly and not disturb others. Also, members should have been made aware that a private party would be taking place.

Dawkins had asked about renting the pool out for the entire event but was told that it wouldn’t be necessary.

Meanwhile, Paolone, who is white and  has been a member for five years, told me that she feels the Drexel Swim Club is being wrongfully smeared.

“My husband is black and my children are biracial,” she said. “It had nothing to do with anyone’s color. … If you wanted a private party at a pool, I suggest they should have rented somebody’s house.”