Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'They weren't thinking'

Sobbing, angry mom lashes out in inquest

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JOSHUA Harder would be alive today if his parents had known how few adults were supervising 95 elementary students during a swim party, the student's grief-stricken mother told an inquest yesterday.

Kristin Harder said she offered to be a parent volunteer on the trip, but was told she wasn't needed.

Her five-year-old son drowned on a last-day-of-classes outing last June 27 at Margaret Grant Pool.

At times sobbing, at times angry, but with a voice that was usually steady and outwardly calm, Harder told Judge Susan Devine that St. Adolphe School never asked her if Joshua could swim or if he needed a flotation device.

It wasn't enough for the pool to have just three lifeguards watching 95 kindergarten-to-Grade 4 kids, nor should the City of Winnipeg have let a busy pool use floating mats bigger than some children, Harder testified.

Initial reports said Joshua drowned when he was trapped under a floating mat. "When I saw the size of the mats, I was just sickened," she said. "Why would you have a mat that's four feet long in a pool with a child who's three feet?"

Five teachers and one adult volunteer were in street clothes at the time Joshua drowned.

"I don't understand why outings have to involve 100 kids," Harder said. "There's no way you can tell me there's control there.

"I don't know what they were thinking -- they weren't thinking," she said.

Harder said schools must provide parents with more information about out-of-school activities, and facilities have to take more responsibility for supervision. She said children should be in smaller groups.

"I received afterward a pamphlet from the Lifesaving Society that described to a 'T' how to protect your child. If I had that pamphlet beforehand, I wouldn't be sitting here today," Harder told the inquest.

"This pamphlet said 'within arm's reach."

Harder and her husband, Rudy Harder, later spoke briefly to reporters outside the courthouse. They plan to sit through the inquest, which is scheduled to run three weeks.

"If I had known there was going to be nobody else on the pool deck, I would have been there," Kristin Harder told reporters.

"The children were at the pool 10 minutes. Some children weren't even wet yet, and my son was drowned."

Testifying at the inquest, Harder said she had signed a school form earlier in the year agreeing to be a parent volunteer.

Two days before the pool trip, she asked Joshua's teacher if she should go on the outing: "She said it was all under control. I asked if that means you have enough people, and she said 'yes.' "

Harder said the parental consent form for the outing had arrived two weeks before -- the kids would leave school at 10:15 a.m., reach the pool at 10:30 a.m., leave the water at 11:15 a.m., and be back at school by noon for hotdogs.

The form did not ask about the child's swimming ability, or if the child required water wings or any other kind of flotation device, she testified.

Would it have been a good idea for the school to check with parents? Crown Attorney Kerry Pearlman asked.

"Very much so," Joshua's mother replied . She told the inquest parents assume the school will give their kids thorough safety talks before field trips.

Kristin Harder said other parents have told her that the normal ratio on a school outing is one adult for every five children. That was the ratio when Joshua went to a conservation area in Hadashville, she testified.

Harder said that Joshua was used to being in water at the family cottage. "He was very comfortable holding his breath under the water," she said, adding: "We'd never been to a swimming pool."

She had told Joshua that a pool was different than the lake -- no running or splashing, be sure to obey the lifeguard.

"The school was very compassionate" following Joshua's death, Harder said. "They often asked if there was anything they could do.

"The City of Winnipeg never contacted us, or the Margaret Grant Pool," she said. Harder testified she asked pool management in September for a copy of the city policy on group outings. "I was told by manager Carol Hardy that I was not allowed to see the policy."

Winnipeg police Sgt. Bill Fogg -- whose child-abuse unit investigates all child deaths -- said pool staff removed floating mats and toys from the pool, and treated vomit left by Joshua in the water with chemicals, before police could secure the scene.

Teachers took the rest of the children back to St. Adolphe, so that kids talked among themselves before police could interview witnesses, Fogg said.

With Margaret Grant's acting pool supervisor at another pool that morning, "there seemed to be some overall confusion as to who had been in charge at the time," Fogg said.

"We have no photographs we can present here that would depict the pool the way it was," Fogg testified. There were variations in accounts among a dozen kids police interviewed, he said, and "I'm not able to say definitively what happened."

Judge Devine observed: "It may be of assistance to teachers and school divisions to have a protocol when there is an accident scene."

Fogg said witnesses saw Joshua go down a plastic slide near floating mats, but no one saw what happened next. "I have not been able to identify anyone who saw him struggling or in distress."

Dr. Charles Littman, a pathologist with the Health Sciences Centre who conducted an autopsy on Joshua last June 28, testified the boy "had apparently been submerged for several minutes."

Littman said it takes about three minutes for a drowning person to lose consciousness due to lack of oxygen in the blood, and about five minutes to die.

Had paramedics been able to revive Joshua, "the likelihood is Joshua would have been left with some neurological damage," Littman said.

The inquest continues this morning, when teachers who accompanied the field trip are expected to testify.

This is the second inquest involving Seine River School Division in the past seven years.

Seven-year-old Raymond Cadieux died under the wheels of his school bus in St. Norbert in the winter of 1996. An inquest led to sweeping changes in school bus safety rules and equipment.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 10, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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