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Weighing risks against benefits in school trips (4 photos)

Lessons learned from tragedy are the subject of this week's column from Back Roads Bill

The future of school trips at any level could be in jeopardy?

This Friday, June 11 is the 43rd anniversary of the Lake Temiskaming canoe tragedy. On that morning of 1978, 27 boys and four leaders from St. John’s School in Ontario set out on an expedition. By the end of the day, 12 boys and one trip leader were dead, with all four canoes overturned and floating aimlessly in the wind. They did not drown but died of hypothermia.

At present many educators, parents and the outdoor education sector are watching the outcomes of a negligence trial. The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) student died four years ago this coming July 4, 2017.

The judge-alone trial for a TDSB physical education teacher charged in relation to the drowning of a 15-year-old C. W. Jefferys Collegiate student while on a six-day canoe trip to Algonquin Park. 

According to the indictment, 57-year-old Nicholas Mills, “…stands charged did by criminal negligence, failed to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm, and/or safeguard the life of Jeremiah Perry, thereby causing his death.”

The Crown Attorney Anna Stanford said within her opening remarks, she will show Mills did not provide parents with meaningful information about the trip, calling it inadequate and inaccurate, which prevented parents from making informed decisions about their children’s safety. She will also prove that Mills paid little attention to safety guidelines which he was obliged to do as a TDSB teacher and altered the swim test because he knew students would not pass the more difficult test mandated by the TDSB. Was the teacher criminally negligent, we will find out?

There has always been a multitude of benefits connected to outdoor education and school trips. Richard Louv, the author of ‘Last Child in the Woods,’ has popularized the Nature Deficit Disorder theory as a way of viewing the problem and describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illness and the potential loss of the necessary connection between human health and the health of the natural world.

At no other time as we transition out of the pandemic being with nature will become increasingly important to the mental health wellbeing of our children/students. Elementary and secondary schools are charged with undertaking so many responsibilities, including school trip preparedness for any time classes, clubs, and teams leave the school property.

Three experts were contacted regarding the topic of risk management and school trips, the question was “What have we learned from incidents like the Perry drowning, the Lake the Timiskaming tragedy and other mishaps like the deaths of two Grade 7 students who were on a tour boat near Tobermory.

James Raffan is the author of Deep Waters – Courage, Character and the Lake Timiskaming Canoeing Tragedy. This tragedy, which was first deemed to be an accident, was actually, as Raffan explains, “a tale of a school’s survival philosophy gone terribly wrong, unsafe canoes and equipment, and a total lack of emergency preparedness training. Deep Waters is a remarkable story of endurance, courage and unspeakable pain.”

It is a book that also explores the nature of risk-taking and the resilience of the human spirit.

"We have learned that there is no room in any curriculum for educational pursuits that results in injury or death. But we have also learned that, as heartbreaking and tragic as these incidents are, we must not throw out the demonstrated and significant outcomes of adventure education with the black waters of bad teaching practice, particularly when such practice is highlighted and condemned by the courts. The future of outdoor education must continue championing the absolute best standards of training and practice for practitioners but it also must include sustained advocacy for the value of risk as a driver of all effective education."

ALIVE Outdoors is an educational organization with more than 20 years of history developing and facilitating meaningful and engaging outdoor programs for schools that are focused on an authentic connection to the natural environment. Their programs guide participants through "experiences with challenge, accomplishment, unexpected outcomes and moments of imperfection." Ryan Howard, PhD, is their Director of Research, Risk, and Innovation.

“As a field or practice, we need to stop believing that policy and standards are the only tools that prevent tragedies from happening. There have been abundant opportunities over the past 30 years to grow the practices of risk management within the field of Outdoor Education, and by-and-large we have. Effective risk management comes down to relevant training, sound judgment, educator experience, industry practices, diligent oversight, and most importantly availability of resources to support these practices. Schools and school boards have been relegated to an overreliance on standards to manage risk, or as I see it, "the curse of the minimum standard." This reality is just plain wrong, ineffective, and an outdated approach to risk management. There is incredible risk management thinking and resources that optimize safety from systems and organizational perspectives, it is time for school boards to catch up and use these resources to help get more students outdoors. I believe there is a tremendous opportunity to get students learning outdoors without thinking that it is a dangerous or unsafe pursuit.”

Tony Cox is CEO at Leaders of the Day, specializing in “reconnecting people with Nature themselves and each other,” and Co-Chair of the Canadian Outdoor Summit Project, its aim is to “begin to remove roadblocks currently affecting outdoor programming.”

He said there are two things related to this case that the Outdoor Education world understands very well. “It is essential to design activities and adventures that match the skills, experiences and vulnerabilities of a group and that the use of life jackets plays a powerful role in keeping people safe on and in the water.”

Tony said, “A true participant-centered approach would never have resulted in Jeremiah Perry being found in the circumstances that ultimately led to his tragic death. Being participant - centered means choosing a trip format, route and supervision that accounts, for the unique needs, and make up of a group, even if it means changing the vision of that trip.

“So often I think the conversation wrongly turns in the direction of non-swimmers being in the back-country when there are perfectly effective ways to keep non-swimmers safe. This has been happening for decades in the wider industry. Wearing a Personal Flotation Device both in a canoe and when by the water allows non-swimmers the opportunity to take part fully and safely in backcountry adventures. It is more rightly a matter of vigilance and supervision. Unequivocally, a life jacket or PFD would have prevented this tragic event.”

Back Roads

We see the benefits of taking students on outdoor trips, but the school trip door for teachers will most likely mean may change due to associated risk. I have traced the Temiskaming canoe tragedy with students in voyageur canoes.

James Raffan’s book remains required reading by my university students. It is my life’s work in taking students outside. I am not sure if the Perry trial will go the way of establishing of a Perry’s Law, much like Rowan’s Law and the mandatory training regarding concussion protocol?

School trip preparedness (STP), a detailed comprehensive visual plan format is something I have worked on for many years; the journey is to have school boards, administration, principals and teachers embrace this approach to complement existing policies and guidelines.

For me any time a student leaves the school is a “school trip.” It may well echo the Crown Attorney’s opening remarks; parents need and deserve "meaningful information." 

At present, a growing number of school boards, the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association and the Ontario School Boards’ Insurance Exchange are reviewing how the STP model can be implemented.

There are many risk management models but the benefits of outdoor trips are worth planning the countless details; you have to assess the risks and account for such within the decision-making process.

Balancing risks and benefits away from school aims to encourage students to take a reasonable and proportionate approach to safety in outdoor and adventurous settings, and to reassure them that managing risks should not be a disincentive to being outside with nature consuming a healthy dose of “Vitamin N.” The word safe, misrepresents what outdoor education has to be. We don't avoid the risk, we embrace it. 

Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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