Defence in teacher negligence trial suggests principal knew swim test was altered

·3 min read

TORONTO — Defence lawyers for a teacher accused in the death of a teen who drowned during a wilderness field trip in central Ontario suggested Friday that the school's principal knew students hadn't been tested on their swimming abilities as rigorously as regulations required.

During cross-examination, lawyers representing Nicholas Mills suggested Monday Gala was aware that students had been allowed to wear a life jacket during the test, which they had to pass in order to attend the six-day canoe trip in July 2017.

Defence lawyer Phil Campbell noted Gala, who was principal of C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute at the time of the incident, acknowledged seeing students with and without life jackets when he went to observe some of the swim testing conducted in a previous year.

Campbell further suggested his client had talked to the principal about permitting students to wear a life jacket during the swim test even though the rules called for them to do without -- something Gala repeatedly denied.

The principal said he had discussions with Mills regarding the various testing requirements in broad terms, but that "we never got to a point where we said it was OK for the kids to do the test with the life jacket."

Gala maintained he believed students were being assessed according to the regulations, and said he couldn't say for sure whether what he had witnessed in the past was the actual swim test or just part of the process.

Court has heard regulations called for students to pass the test without a life jacket before going on an overnight canoe trip, but could be tested wearing the safety device if they were simply going on a canoeing day trip.

Prosecutors allege Mills neglected safety rules and requirements related to the trip.

Mills, a teacher at C.W. Jefferys, led the canoe trip to Algonquin Provincial Park during which 15-year-old Jeremiah Perry drowned.

Perry disappeared in the water at Big Trout Lake, and his body was recovered the next day by police divers.

The judge-alone trial has previously heard students had to pass the swim test -- which included swimming a certain distance, treading water and rolling into the water -- in order to participate in the excursion.

The plan was later amended so that anyone who failed the test would be given swimming instruction and allowed to take a second test.

Those who failed the second test would instead be offered another outdoor activity so they wouldn't be deprived of a credit, court heard.

The swimming test for the Algonquin trip took place a few weeks earlier at Sparrow Lake, court heard.

Gala testified Thursday that he didn't inquire about the results of the test before the canoe trip. When pressed on the issue during cross-examination Friday, he said no one alerted him that any students had failed.

In fact, Gala said, he was not aware of any student ever failing the swim test in the five years of the program's existence.

"It was never brought to me that any kid has failed any of these tests," he told the court.

When asked whether he thought it was possible to have a 100 per cent passing rate over that length of time, Gala said: "Nothing was ever brought to me to the contrary."

The defence noted Gala would have needed to know whether anyone had failed in case the school needed to arrange swim lessons and a makeup test, and suggested he didn't ask because he knew the students were wearing life jackets during the assessment.

"I would respectfully disagree with that assessment," Gala said.

The trial is taking place via videoconference and is set to resume Tuesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 21, 2021.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press

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