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Mother says she felt pressured to send daughter on trip where Toronto student died

Fifteen-year-old Jeremiah Perry, a student at C.W. Jeffreys Collegiate Institute who drowned on a school-run camping trip this summer, in a photo provided by his family.

A mother says she felt pressured by a teacher at a Toronto school to send her daughter, who cannot swim, on a camping trip on which a fellow student drowned.

Milessa De Freitas said her daughter, a student at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute, had not been doing well in school and she did not want to reward her by letting her go on the trip. However, she said, a teacher from the school called her several times over the course of a week telling her the portaging trip in Algonquin Provincial Park would be an invaluable learning experience, so she eventually consented.

The 14-year-old did not not know how to swim, and struggled in the water during the swimming test that preceded the trip, Ms. DeFreitas told The Globe and Mail on Thursday.

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"I'm really disappointed in the school, and I feel we were deceived as parents because I know my kid couldn't swim," Ms. De Freitas said. "Had I known that it was one of the requirements, my kid would have not been on that trip, I guarantee that, 100 per cent."

Her daughter's friend Jeremiah Perry, 15, also a student at C.W. Jefferys, drowned in July on the third day of the outdoor education excursion while swimming in a lake with his classmates.

The Toronto District School Board revealed earlier this week that Jeremiah was among 15 students – half the class on the trip – who failed a mandatory swim test. There is no documentation to indicate whether two other students who went were tested, according to the initial findings from the school board's investigation into Jeremiah's death.

TDSB director John Malloy said earlier this week that he was "deeply troubled" to learn that crucial safety requirements were not followed before the multi-day camping and canoeing trip. Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter said on Thursday that the province will review safety procedures, including swim test requirements and supervision ratios, at all school boards.

The Globe and Mail has learned that one of the two teachers who supervised the excursion put a note on the trip-approval paperwork that was sent to the school superintendent saying those who failed the swim test would be offered swim lessons and one-on-one coaching in the C.W. Jefferys pool. Those students could then repeat the test.

The TDSB found that no further swim tests or instruction were provided. (The school offered students who failed the test an outdoor education activity on land at a later date.)

It is unclear why the teachers did not provide additional instruction to those who failed the test. The two teachers have refused to speak with the TDSB, Dr. Malloy said. The teachers are on home assignment, which means they will not return to the classroom while the probe is under way. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, which represents the two teachers, declined to comment on Thursday. (Four volunteers also accompanied the students.)

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The trip to Algonquin Provincial Park was part of a school-credit course. Jeremiah was swimming in Big Trout Lake when he disappeared under the water. Search and rescue crews found his body a day later.

The Ontario Provincial Police and the Office of the Chief Coroner are conducting separate investigations into Jeremiah's death. Both said the investigations are ongoing and declined further comment on Thursday.

The TDSB has tightened its excursion safety measures and approval process in light of the preliminary findings of its investigation. For future multi-day trips that require the ability to swim, principals will review the results of the tests and decide whether to give their approval.

As well, students and their parents will be given the results of pre-trip tests.

Ms. De Freitas said she knew vaguely about the trip and what it would entail. She assumed that because her daughter could not swim, being in the water and having swimming skills would not be a big component. She said the teacher never told her that her daughter needed to take and pass a swim test.

Students took the swim test, which is designed for canoe trips, at Sparrow Lake, north of Orillia, Ont. The test took place about three weeks before the trip, Ms. De Freitas said.

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"They never told her [my daughter] if she failed or passed, but she knew she failed, because when she was in the water, she didn't do anything. When she went in at first she thought she was going to drown," she said. "Out of her group, she was the last to finish because she was struggling."

Ms. De Freitas's daughter declined to speak with The Globe. Her mother said she trusted school staff to protect the students.

"To this day, I can't sleep without my lights on. To this day, it really frightens me, because it could have been my kid," Ms. De Freitas said.

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Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

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