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Cooper Onyett died at school camp in Victoria: new details emerge

An elementary school knew an eight-year-old student was a weak swimmer but failed to inform an aquatic center before the boy drowned while at camp.

Grade 2 student Cooper Onyett drowned on May 21, 2021 at Belfast Aquatics in Port Fairy, south-west Victoria, during a trip organized by Merrivale Primary School in Warrnambool.

The school sent parents permission slips and medical forms before the trip, asking them how far their children could swim.

Cooper’s mother checked a box confirming he was a beginner swimmer with little or no experience in shallow water, prosecutor Duncan Chisholm told the Victoria County Court in Warrnambool on Thursday.

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

Cooper Onyett died at school camp in Victoria: new details emerge

Grade 2 student Cooper Onyett drowned on May 21, 2021, at Belfast Aquatics in Port Fairy, southwestern Victoria, during a school trip.

Cooper (pictured) was identified as a weak swimmer by his mother, but was seen twice outside the shallow center area.

Cooper (pictured) was identified as a weak swimmer by his mother, but was seen twice outside the shallow center area.

Second graders were asked to raise their hands if they knew how to swim when they arrived at the aquatic center, Chisholm said.

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

Cooper was among the children identified as a weak swimmer and was seen twice more outside the shallow area, jumping to the bottom 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 at first thought he was holding his breath.

“After about 40 seconds he realized something wasn’t right,” Chisholm said.

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

Victoria’s education department 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.

“If information about the children’s swimming skills had been communicated to Belfast, this could have reduced the risk of drowning,” Mr Chisholm said.

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

Currie said the information was collected for planning purposes and that the department could not “anticipate in each case the exact information a provider might need” for a school activity.

It was up to the pool to ask for the information, the lawyer 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?’

Chisholm said the department was relying on someone else to fulfill its own obligation when it assigned the aquatic center the responsibility of asking about students’ swimming abilities.

“When they drop kids off, they don’t just pull them off the bus and say, ‘You’ll be right,'” he said.

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

Victoria's education department pleaded guilty to breaching health and safety legislation over Cooper's death.

Victoria’s education department pleaded guilty to breaching health and safety legislation over Cooper’s death.

However, he said there was no evidence that revealing the children’s swimming skills would have changed the way Belfast Aquatics managed the activity on May 21.

Port Fairy Community Pool Management has also admitted breaching health and safety legislation.

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

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