$180,000 fine issued after student drowns on school camp

A local pool operator in Victoria and the Department of Education have been fined a total of $180,000 after the drowning death of an eight-year-old boy at Port Fairy while on a school camp.

Cooper Onyett, a year two student at Merrivale Primary, drowned at the Belfast Aquatics Community Pool and Fitness Centre on 21 May 2021.

Port Fairy Community Pool Management Group and the Department of Education were both sentenced in the Warrnambool County Court after earlier pleading guilty to a single charge each of failing to ensure that persons other than employees were not exposed to health and safety risks.

The pool operator was convicted and fined $80,000, while the department was convicted and fined $100,000.

The court heard that department policy requires schools to assess and consider students’ swimming competency before planning any water-based activities. However, Merrivale students had not been assessed since the end of 2019.

Prior to the camp, Cooper’s mother completed a form advising that her son was a “beginner swimmer” with “little or no experience including in shallow water,” but the school did not share the form, or any information about children’s swimming abilities, with Belfast Aquatics.

The school had booked the use of an inflatable obstacle course, which was set up in the deep section of the pool, where the depth was 1.2 to 1.35 metres.

On arrival, the pool’s manager and lifeguard asked the group of 28 students to raise a hand if they’d had swimming lessons, allowing those who indicated they could swim to use the obstacle course and directing the rest to the shallow section of the pool.

Initially, the manager and another lifeguard stationed themselves at the start and side of the obstacle course to supervise children using it, while teachers supervised the other students.

However, a number of children, including Cooper, struggled in the water immediately after finishing the course – prompting the manager to get into the pool to offer assistance.

Over the next half an hour, the manager determined that only six children were strong enough swimmers to use the obstacle course, and had assisted or directed at least 12 other children over the dividing wall to the shallow section of the pool.

Sometime later, a member of the public swimming in the deep section spotted Cooper floating underwater. She called for assistance and took him to the pool deck with the help of the manager. The manager performed CPR but was unable to revive Cooper.

The court heard it was reasonably practicable for Port Fairy Community Pool Management Group to reduce the risk of drowning by testing the children’s swimming abilities.

The pool also failed to provide lifeguards with information and instruction on procedures for using the inflatable course, including how it was to be used, who could use it, and how its use should be supervised.

The court heard it was reasonably practicable for the Department of Education to reduce the risk of less experienced swimmers drowning by providing information to the pool about children’s swimming abilities before they entered the water.

“It’s hard to comprehend how young children could be allowed to use an obstacle course at the deep end of a pool without first taking real steps to objectively assess their swimming abilities,” said WorkSafe Victoria executive director health and safety, Narelle Beer.

“Families also place their trust in education providers to care for their children, it’s not enough just to have parents tick a box on a form, schools must use this information for its intended purpose – to help keep children safe,” she said.