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Pool management and education department fined $180k over drowning of eight-year-old boy

June 3rd, 2024

On May 31, Warrnambool County Court’s Judge Claire Quin fined both Port Fairy Community Pool Management and the Victorian Department of Education over the death of an eight-year-old boy in 2021.

The fines of $100,000 for the education department and $80,000 for the community pool management were imposed for safety breaches surrounding the drowning of Cooper Onyett at his school camp.

Port Fairy Community Pool Management is a not-for-profit organisation run by volunteers. The Year 2 student drowned after slipping below the surface of the Belfast Aquatics Community Pool and Fitness Centre in Port Fairy during a group activity involving an inflatable aquatic course.

His mother had given advice to the school that he could not swim well. However, this information was not relayed to the pool staff, who asked for a show of hands as to who could swim before allowing Cooper onto the inflatable.

Judge Claire Quin said asking children if they could swim was unreliable as they were likely eager to get onto the inflatable course.

Twenty children were allowed onto the inflatable, but soon the lead lifeguard decided to get in the water to help children including Cooper who were struggling to swim to the shallow end. Only six students were assessed as being able to continue using the inflatable device and the remaining 22 were told to stay in the shallow end.

Cooper was later spotted by a swimmer who at first thought he was holding his breath, before she quickly alerted staff. The boy was pulled from the water but could not be revived.

The judge described the Victorian Education Department’s breach of workplace safety laws as serious because it had failed to relay information collected about the children’s swimming skills to staff at the pool.

The pool management was convicted and Quin said that even though its breach was more serious, the punishment was moderated by its status as a not-for-profit community pool and acknowledged the group had since worked with WorkSafe Victoria and Life Saving Victoria to improve staffing levels, policies and procedures at the pool.

She also found the Department of Education’s breach was serious, however there had been improvement in policies and procedures since the tragedy to ensure the information on swimming abilities would be passed onto providers.

“Schools are now required to assess students’ swimming abilities prior to the water activity being carried out,” she said.

“I was informed that parents can now be confident the information they provide to the school regarding their child’s swimming abilities will be provided to the relevant party involved in the swimming activity, [and] that there have been broader improvements generally to the guidance and resources as well.

“As far as this breach is concerned, the issue has been fully addressed.”

Related information: RLS Safety Alert for Inflatables

By Chris Maher
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