Cooper Onyett: School knew boy was weak swimmer before drowning at Belfast Aquatics at Port Fairy in Victoria

Cassandra Morgan
3 Min Read
A boy whose mother told his school he was a beginner swimmer drowned on an aquatics centre trip.
A boy whose mother told his school he was a beginner swimmer drowned on an aquatics centre trip. Credit: Brendon Thorne/AAP

A primary school knew an eight-year-old student was a weak swimmer but failed to inform an aquatics centre before the boy drowned while at camp.

Grade 2 student Cooper Onyett drowned on May 21, 2021, at Belfast Aquatics at Port Fairy in Victoria’s southwest while on a trip organised by Merrivale Primary School at Warrnambool.

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

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

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

The grade 2 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.

“After about 40 seconds she realised something wasn’t right,” Mr 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 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 needed 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 ability.

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

Ms 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.

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

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

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