Monday, June 17, 2024

Disturbing twist after Cooper Onyett dies on school camp

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The parents of a young boy who nearly drowned during a school camp, just minutes before another student tragically died, are suing the state government and an aquatic centre.

Brad and Pearl Sutton’s son, who cannot be named, nearly drowned while at Belfast Aquatics at Port Fairy in Victoria’s southwest while on a trip organised by Merrivale Primary School at Warrnambool.

They claim their eight-year-old son struggled to stay afloat in the water after he jumped off the inflatable set up at the deep end.

‘He couldn’t keep his arms above the water, all you could see were his hands poking out,’ Mr Sutton told the Herald Sun.

The parents of a young boy who nearly drowned during a school camp, just minutes before another student tragically died, are suing the state government and an aquatic centre.

The distressing incident happened just five minutes before year two student Cooper Onyett (pictured) drowned during the same school camp

The distressing incident happened just five minutes before year two student Cooper Onyett (pictured) drowned during the same school camp 

‘He was under the water for a long time, he thought he was going to die that day.’

Mr Sutton said his son’s goggles began to fill with water and he couldn’t keep his head up.

‘I was trying to hold on to the inflatable, but it was so slippery I couldn’t grip it,’ Mr Sutton recalled his son saying.

A woman swimming at the opposite end of the pool saw the boy struggling in the water. 

She immediately alerted the nearby teachers and staff, who quickly helped him out of the pool.

Mr Sutton explained that the school required parents to complete a permission form detailing their children’s swimming abilities. On this form, he clearly stated that his son could not swim.

According to legal documents filed in the Supreme Court, Mr and Mrs Sutton are now suing the Victorian government and Port Fairy Community Pool Management Group, which runs Belfast Aquatics, for negligence.

The parents intend to claim damages and other costs as a result of the incident.

Mr Sutton said he hopes this prevents other families from facing a similar situation.

The distressing incident happened just five minutes before year two student, Cooper Onyett, drowned during the same school camp.

The Department of Education pleaded guilty to a WorkSafe charge of ‘failing to ensure … persons were not exposed to risk’, after the little boy died.

The swimming center has reportedly pleaded guilty to charges filed by WorkSafe last Wednesday. 

Last Thursday, the Warrnambool County Court heard the school sent parents permission slips and medical forms before the trip, asking them how far their children could swim.

Cooper’s mother Skye ticked a box confirming he was a beginner swimmer with little or no experience in shallow water, prosecutor Duncan Chisholm told the court.

However, the school never passed information about students’ swimming abilities to the pool before sending 28 young students there.

The Grade Two students were asked to raise their hands if they could swim when they got to the aquatic centre, Mr Chisholm said.

Children who said they could swim were led to an inflatable obstacle course in the pool’s deep end, however many were ultimately identified as weak swimmers and helped to the shallow end, he said.

Cooper was among the children identified as a weak swimmer and was spotted twice more outside the shallow area – jumping into the deep end and onto the inflatable, which he was told to get off.

A swimmer who was with her daughter later saw the boy floating underwater and initially thought he was holding his breath.

Cooper (left) is pictured with his mum Skye Meinen

Cooper (left) is pictured with his mum Skye Meinen

‘After about 40 seconds, she realised something wasn’t right,’ Chisholm said.

Cooper died after attempts to resuscitate him at the pool failed.

Victoria’s education department has pleaded guilty to breaching health and safety legislation over Cooper’s death, admitting it failed to ensure people other than employees were not exposed to risks.

‘Had the information about the children’s swimming abilities been communicated to Belfast, this could have assisted the risk of drowning,’ Mr Chisholm said.

Throughout last Thursday’s plea hearing, Judge Claire Quin repeatedly asked government barrister Carmen Currie why the school collected information about the children’s swimming ability if not to disclose it to the pool.

Ms Currie said the information was collected for planning purposes, and the department could not ‘anticipate in every single case the exact information a provider might need’ for a school activity.

It was up to the pool to ask for the information, the barrister said.

‘The activity was swimming,’ Judge Quin said.

‘Why get the information if you’re not going to give it to the people who need it?’

Mr Chisholm said the department was relying on someone else to satisfy its own obligation when it put the onus on the aquatic centre to ask about students’ swimming abilities.

‘When they drop kids off they’re not just handballing them off the bus and saying, ‘you’ll be right’,’ he said.

Currie said the department has since made it mandatory for schools to tell pools about their students’ swimming abilities.

However, she said there was no evidence that disclosing the children’s swimming abilities would have changed how Belfast Aquatics managed the activity on May 21.

Judge Quin is expected to sentence both the department and pool management on May 31.

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