Teen who died in Algonquin Park during TDSB canoe trip didn't pass swim test

Teen Jeremiah Perry did not pass a swim test prior to going on a Toronto District School Board canoe trip to Algonquin Park in early July, says the board.

Half of the students who took a swim test before canoe trip failed, school board says

C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute student Jeremiah Perry, 15, died in Big Trout Lake July 4. (Submitted by the Perry family)

Jeremiah Perry, 15, did not pass a swim test prior to going on a Toronto District School Board canoe trip to Algonquin Park in early July, says the board.

TDSB protocol requires that students pass a swim test in order to go on such a trip.

Jeremiah was one of 33 students from C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute and Westview Centennial Secondary School who were participating in the week-long outdoor education excursion as part of the summer-school curriculum. Jeremiah's 17-year-old brother was also on the trip.

The students were three days into their canoe trip northeast of Toronto when Jeremiah slipped under the water while swimming in Big Trout Lake. When he didn't resurface, police were called. His death appears to be a drowning but an official cause of death has not been determined yet.

According to the school board, of the 30 students on the trip who took the swim test, 15 failed.

Fortunately there weren't more tragedies, says Joshua Anderson, Jeremiah's father. In speaking with reporters, his message to other parents was "just go down on your knees and thank God that you guys aren't the ones who got the call in the night ... because it could have been worse, given the numbers that everyone found out today, it could have been worse."

"No further swim tests or instruction was provided or offered" after the initial test, the board said.

John Malloy, the director of education for the country's largest school board, said he is "deeply troubled by these findings and that such a critical safety requirement in our procedures appears not to have been followed."

He added that when he shared the news with Jeremiah's family, he offered a "sincere apology and regret," something Anderson appreciated.

"I'm not satisfied, I will never be satisfied because this is something we have to live with for the rest of our lives, but I'm appreciative that the TDSB and Mr. Malloy are forthcoming so far with the investigation," said Anderson.

He hopes the board continues to be forthcoming with the family and the public to "prevent this from happening period, again, to anybody."

New measures in place

The school board has said several new measures will be put in place before future field trips. Those include:

  • Trips will only be approved only after the principal sees and reviews documentation of any tests taken.
  • All students participating in the swim test and their parents will be given results of the test.

Anderson hopes the new measures aren't just "lip service," and that the board actually follows through with them.

If he had known the results of his son's swim test, he said "everything probably would have been different."

Two teachers would have signed off on the swim test results, according to the school board. They are currently on home assignment and not speaking with investigators. 

John Malloy, director of education for the TDSB, says the board has retained a 'highly experienced and respected investigation firm' to review the incident. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

The TDSB also promised to conduct a third-party review of its excursion procedures, specifically with regards to "high-care" activities, which include canoe trips.

The Ontario Ministry of Education also announced it will be reviewing all school board policies regarding safety procedures involving outdoor field trips, in light the TDSB's investigation.

In addition, it "will be increasing its investment in the Lifesaving Society's programs with new funding for Swim to Survive +, to ensure more students have access to these critical skills, with a new emphasis placed on support for newcomer students," read a statement from the ministry. 

Jeremiah had moved to Toronto from Guyana in 2016.

In the days after the teen's apparent drowning, the TDSB said all students are required to pass a swim test before going on such trips, but could not say where and when the tests took place.

"One of the standard swim tests is conducted in the pool. It would involve water safety, laps, underwater endurance," said Shari Schwartz-Maltz, a spokesperson for the TDSB. She said for canoe excursions, most, if not all, students are required to take an outdoor swim test in a lake.

Guidelines for canoe trips

According to Malloy, TDSB procedures require that students pass the Canoe Tripping Swim Test, as set out by the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association (OPHEA) guidelines.

OPHEA works with school boards to establish safety guidelines for excursions, though in July, a spokesperson told CBC Toronto it was not involved in designing the TDSB's summer program.

In OPHEA's guidelines for canoe trips, the swim test includes:

  • Rolling entry (backward or forward) into deep water at a depth of at least of 2.75 metres.
  • Treading water for one minute.
  • Swimming 50 metres continuously.

According to OPHEA's recommendations, the swim test must be administered by a certified instructor or lifeguard.

The TDSB noted that its investigation is not yet complete, and the board will continue to provide updates to the Perry family and the public.