MANDEL: Teacher found not guilty in Jeremiah Perry’s drowning

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Jeremiah Perry died on his watch, but the mistakes made by C.W. Jefferys Collegiate teacher Nicholas Mills on that ill-fated student wilderness trip to Algonquin Park don’t rise to the level of criminality.

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And so Superior Court Justice Maureen Forestell found Mills, 57, not guilty of criminal negligence causing death in the drowning of the 15-year-old weak swimmer four years ago.

“I cannot conclude that the Crown has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the conduct of Mr. Mills was a marked and substantial departure from the standard of care of a reasonable person in the same circumstances,” the judge said during the virtual judgment.

Despite the prosecutors’ arguments, Forestell had no issue with Mills’ decisions leading up to the July 4, 2017 drowning, including allowing weak and non-swimmers to go on the trip and swim without life jackets. Scouts Canada allowed non-swimmers on their canoe trips in 2017, the judge said, and private tripping companies don’t require life jackets.

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But she found that a reasonable teacher overseeing such an inexperienced group in Big Trout Lake where there’s a sudden drop off to deep water would have foreseen the increased risk of drowning and taken added precautions that Mills didn’t take.

If this were a case of civil negligence, Forestell suggested, that would be enough to find he fell below the standard of care. But in a criminal trial, his failure to reassess the risk was an error in judgment that “does not reach the level of moral blameworthiness necessary for criminal liability.”

The nervous teacher, who watched the decision from his lawyer’s office over Zoom, sighed with relief at what could be the end of this chapter in the tragedy.

Defence lawyer James Lockyer declined comment until they had reviewed the decision.

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Jeremiah was a “vibrant, active and engaging” boy who joined his brother on the backcountry canoe trip Mills arranged each year for disadvantaged youth. While Perry had failed the TDSB-required swim test — as had half of the other students — Mills bent the school requirements so he and the others could still attend, the judge found.

Forestell said Mills misled the school superintendent — and the parents — that the required safeguards were in place, but determined that wasn’t a “significant contributing factor” to Jeremiah’s death.

One of the key issues at trial was whether Jeremiah could swim.

His mother, Melissa Perry, testified her son was a non-swimmer when he joined his father in Canada in 2016. Court heard he failed the pre-trip swim test at Sparrow Lake camp.

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Mills testified that two days before he drowned, Jeremiah asked if he could swim without a life jacket during their canoe trip. The teacher said he asked him to demonstrate and while it “wasn’t pretty,” the teen managed to swim 50 metres.

Forestell accepted that Jeremiah demonstrated a “very basic level” of swim ability. “At best,” she said, “he was a novice swimmer.”

On that fateful evening, Mills agreed the students could go swimming after setting up their campsite. He and his partner were at the drop-off point in the water and swimmers were told not to go past them.

A 17-year-old lifeguard was on shore. Jeremiah was splashing with friends in the shallow end and not wearing a life jacket.

There was no buddy system in place or marked boundaries, the judge said.

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The first sign of trouble came when one of the non-swimmers called for help. Something or someone had touched his leg and tried to pull him down. That’s when Mills noticed Jeremiah was missing.

His body was found by an OPP diver the next day, about 13 metres from shore.

Mills’ failure that day didn’t reach the criminal level of “wanton and reckless disregard,” the judge ruled.

But he bears blame just the same.

  1. Jeremiah Perry is seen in this undated photo.

    MANDEL: School canoe trip where teen drowned was ‘challenging’ and ‘inherently risky,’ court hears

  2. Jeremiah Perry is seen in this undated photo.

    MANDEL: Key witness to Jeremiah Perry’s 2017 Algonquin Park drowning refuses to testify

  3. Jeremiah Perry is seen in this undated photo.

    MANDEL: Teacher’s lawyer insists he had ‘impressive’ safety standards on canoe trip where student drowned

“Allowing Jeremiah to swim without a lifejacket, and his failure to adequately supervise Jeremiah, caused (his) death,” Forestell said.

And that he must live with for the rest of his life.

Mills remains on unpaid leave from the TDSB.

mmandel@postmedia.com

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