Student death prompts calls for better camp safety

A Victorian Coroner has called for better safety guidelines on school camps after investigating the death, in 2010, of a 12-year-old school boy while on a school camp. Kyle Vassil died on 17 February 2010 after drowning in a dam at the Alpine Ash Mountain Retreat near Toolangi in Victoria. Kyle, along with around 78 other students, 5 teachers and 6 support staff, was on a camp run by his school, Aquinas Secondary College, Ringwood (Aquinas). Aquinas had previously held camps at the site for seven years without a student safety incident. The Coroner’s Report sets out the facts of the incident.

Leading up to camp

Kyle’s mother told the Coroner that Kyle was a normal, healthy 12-year-old-boy who was popular and active in sports. Kyle had experienced mild asthma in the past. Before going on camp, Mrs Vassil completed the required medical report form and excursion agreement form. Although Kyle was a competent swimmer, he had only swum supervised at the pool and beach, and not in lakes or dams. Although the Camp fact sheet that listed what students should pack for the camp referred to swimming gear, Mrs Vassil testified that she didn’t know that Kyle would be swimming on the camp and she didn’t pack swimmers for him. No swimming assessments of the students had been undertaken prior to the camp and no information was collected from parents about the students’ swimming capacities.

The events of 17 February

The day was hot and sunny, and after morning activities including a bush walk, students were told that they could swim in the dam. The Aquinas Year 7 and 8 camp co-ordinator, Mr Toomey, was at the dam with two other teachers and a camp leader (an ex-year-12 student). Other supervisors were nearby. Kyle’s friend who arrived at the dam with Kyle testified that Mr Toomey had told them the swimming rules – ‘no pushing, no dunking, no diving, no splashing and no fighting’. The water was dark, murky and very cold and the dam became deep very quickly. There were no life buoys or other safety devices at the dam.

Kyle entered the water with a friend and appeared to be enjoying himself while swimming with two others students. Kyle got into difficulty after around five minutes in the water, at a point relatively close to the water’s edge. Two fellow students tried to help him and at one point, Kyle pulled one of them under the water as he struggled to reach the surface. That student later surfaced but Kyle didn’t. The Coroner determined that Kyle’s behaviour was likely due to the anxiety and panic he felt which may have arisen from his belief that he was suffering from an asthma attack.

Despite the ‘suspicious’ movements of the students in the water and the splashing and distress of the students, none of the supervising teachers present noticed what was happening. Once the teachers were made aware that Kyle was missing they commenced searching for him but could not locate him.

A police diver later located Kyle’s body at the bottom of the dam.

Key findings

Although it was clear in the Report that there was some confusion about the facts on that day due to multiple witnesses accounts, the Coroner found the following factors contributed to Kyle’s death:

  • some of the camp leaders responsible for watching the swimmers were distracted by other leaders standing and talking nearby;
  • there were people blocking the supervisors’ line of view to the dam;
  • those leaders who did witness struggling in the water did not understand what they were seeing and the ‘lethal nature of the threat that existed at that time’; and
  • their mis-intrepretation was because they were unskilled in water safety and were unfamiliar with what to look out for.

Mr Toomey and other senior teachers had received little training in water safety, the proper supervision of swimming at the dam and how to co-ordinate an emergency response.

Ultimately, the Coroner found that Aquinas had failed to undertake an appropriate assessment of the risk involved in swimming at the dam and did not have any crisis management processes in place to adopt an appropriate response to the assessment.

Coroner’s recommendations

The Coroner noted that prior to Kyle’s death Aquinas was not aware of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development Guidelines for Education Outdoors (DEECD Guidelines) but that since his death, it had introduced new policies to comply with the Guidelines including risk management policies such as a:

  • Recreational Swimming Policy;
  • Water Activities Safety Policy; and
  • Risk Management Safety Policy.

Detailed risk assessments are now undertaken prior to activities and students are also assessed on their swimming skills if water activities are involved.

The Coroner made several recommendations including that:

  • all Victorian Catholic Schools adopt the DEECD Guidelines;
  • the Education Minister and the Victorian Regulation and Qualifications Authority consider requiring all Victorian non-government schools adopt the DEECD Guideline as part of registration;
  • Aquinas purchase a defibrillator for use at all school camps; and
  • all Catholic Schools purchase and maintain appropriate safety equipment as advised by Lifesaving Victoria.

What does this mean for schools?

All schools can learn from this sad incident. If the VRQA adopts the Coroner’s recommendations, it will soon become a condition of registration that Victorian non-government schools follow the DEECD Guidelines. However, irrespective of whether this change occurs, this tragedy is a reminder for all schools of the importance of undertaking sufficient training and risk assessments before undertaking any extra-curricular activity, particularly those associated with out door education. See our previous article on how to manage the risks presented by school excursions for more information.

Risk assessment involves assessing the risk both in terms of the likelihood of an event occurring (a student getting into difficulties in the water) and the potential consequences if the event was to occur (injury or death), and establishing an overall risk rating (usually low, moderate, high or extreme). The degree of risk generally determines the strength of controls, or mitigation strategies, that must be in place. Common risk mitigation strategies include student capabilities assessment,  supervision and communications strategies as well as critical incident response strategies.

About the author

Xenia Hammon is the Editor – School Governance. She can be contacted here.

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