LEWISTON — A day after Lewiston Middle School seventh-grader Rayan A. Issa drowned during a field trip, Superintendent Bill Webster on Wednesday asked the school department’s law firm, Brann & Isaacson, to conduct an investigation into what transpired at Range Pond.
Webster’s decision highlights the many questions that remained as authorities and school officials sought clarity about the drowning, and as rumors have continued to circulate over social media — including claims that chaperones were not immediately responsive or were even dismissive of students who told them Rayan was missing.
Webster responded Wednesday by saying that the information relayed to him so far about the investigation “doesn’t jive” with those rumors.
“I think the truth will come out on that, and I would just caution anyone about prejudging,” he said. “I do know that I have a group of teachers who care passionately about their students.”
The Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office is urging anyone who was at Range Pond State Park in Poland Spring on Tuesday and saw all or part of the incident to contact the sheriff’s office at (207) 753-2599.
In Auburn, school officials decided Wednesday to cancel all trips to Range Pond for the rest of the year after initially planning to go ahead with at least three trips this week.
Superintendent Katy Grondin said a robocall would go out to parents of sixth-graders at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Androscoggin County Chief Deputy William Gagne said the preliminary investigation indicated Rayan was playing in the water with friends within a buoyed swimming area when he went under. The boy was missing underwater for at least half an hour.
Webster has said Rayan went underwater while playing football with friends, and that he might not have known how to swim.
Police received a 911 call at 11:47 a.m., reporting a student missing. Gagne said staff and a lifeguard on duty tried to find the boy but could not. Webster has said the water at the time was “murky.”
Rayan was found by firefighters at about 12:17 p.m. and taken to shore, where first aid was administered. He was taken to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, where he was later pronounced dead.
In response to questions about the incident Wednesday, Webster said the roped-off area at Range Pond is “right off the beach and visible to chaperones.”
Webster did not know specifically how deep the roped-off area was, but he said there are places where “it was over the head of the student.”
He said a 10-to-1 ratio of students to chaperone is common for middle school outings, with about a 6-to-1 ratio for elementary school student trips that include swimming.
Webster has said the 113 students on the seventh-grade outing were accompanied by 11 chaperones and a lifeguard. However, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which oversees the state park, that lifeguard was a park employee responsible for watching everyone in the swimming area, not just the Lewiston Middle School group.
Department spokesman John Bott said the lifeguard on duty Tuesday watched the Lewiston group and 15 to 20 other swimmers.
Bott said groups can bring additional certified lifeguards, if they want. Lewiston did not.
Rayan’s drowning was the first swimming-related death at a Maine state park in more than 35 years.
The park installs the swim buoys. Chaperones set rules for their own children, including how far out they may swim. Bott said a park staff member gives a safety talk to every group, which includes reminding chaperones to set strict limits on anyone who does not swim well.
Field trips to Range Pond are regular events for local schools.
Webster said Wednesday that, over the years, “we and many other schools have taken field trips to Range Pond for water activities.” Bott agreed that such trips are common.
Prior to field trips, Lewiston parents must sign permission slips. The Sun Journal requested sample copies of the permission slips in Lewiston and Auburn, but did not receive them by early Wednesday evening.
Tuesday’s middle school field trip was among a number of trips approved by the Lewiston School Committee on May 7. Also approved that evening: an elementary school trip to Aquaboggan Water Park in Saco and high school excursions to Old Orchard Beach and whitewater rafting.
The field trip request for Range Pond was completed by seventh-grade teacher Krista St. Cyr, who is the middle school’s “green team” leader. The completed form was included in the School Committee’s informational material that night.
Field trip requests — whether or not they involve swimming — come with a requirement that “at least one teacher or responsible adult must be accompanying every 10 students at the elementary level, 15 students at the middle school level and 25 students at the high school level.”
For outings that are overnight, out of state or involve water activities, watercraft or air transportation, the form asks the educational reason for the trip.
For Range Pond, St. Cyr responded: “To expose students to new places outside of Lewiston. Students who have more life experiences do better in school.”
In Auburn, school officials said they would reassess such field trips following Rayan’s drowning. Like Webster in Lewiston, Grondin said Range Pond has been a special place for many end-of-year class trips.
The planned robocall to Auburn parents Wednesday stated, in part: “Out of respect for the Lewiston student who passed away at Range Pond on Tuesday, the PEACE BBQ will now be on Friday, June 15, at Pettingill Park. Please look for a new permission slip that will go home tomorrow afternoon, which needs to be returned Friday morning. Thank you for your understanding.”
Before she decided Wednesday to move the trip, Grondin had said Auburn would have two additional lifeguards at Range Pond.
School systems have a variety of guidelines when it comes to field trips that involve water.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland is responsible for about 2,255 students at nearly a dozen schools throughout the state, including St. Dominic Academy in Lewiston and Auburn.
Spokesman Dave Guthro said the diocese does not prohibit water-based field trips, but all requests must be made to the Office of Risk Management. That office considers a number of safety factors before granting approval.
Some commercial boating trips have been approved over the years, Guthro said, but he could not recall ever getting a request from a school for a swimming field trip.
In the Farmington area’s RSU 9, Superintendent Tom Ward said his students are allowed to swim only within sight of trained lifeguards, and even then there are additional rules.
“Elementary students at a beach are not allowed to go in above their knees,” he said. The district also tries to maintain a chaperone-to-student ratio of 1-to-3.
About Rayan Issa