Reaction: Schools need to re-examine safety

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Lewiston Superintendent of Schools Bill Webster, right, reads a directive on new procedures for field trips involving the school summer program during Monday’s school committee meeting. School committee chairman Francis Gagnon listens at left. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — The Lewiston School Department has some work to do when it comes to best practices on field trips that involve swimming, said Superintendent Bill Webster, reacting to a report on what happened when seventh-grader Rayan Issa drowned June 12 during a Lewiston Middle School field trip to Range Pond State Park in Poland.

“I’ve learned a lot about swimming and best practices since this tragic incident,” Webster said Tuesday. “And I’m more aware of how much we don’t know, or didn’t know, about what these best practices should be.”

For now, no Lewiston Public School students will be taken on field trips where swimming is allowed, Webster said. Time will tell whether that restriction is temporary or permanent.

A report is being prepared by Daniel Stockford, a lawyer with Brann & Isaacson, that will recommend best practices on students and swimming. The recommendations will be based on recommendations from experts.

“If there is one thing we can do to honor the life of Rayan Issa, we can make sure that all authorities are using best practices as it relates to giving students the opportunity to go swimming,” he said.

John Bott, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which oversees the state parks, agreed.

“It’s a tragedy,” Bott said. “Hopefully at the end of this, schools will have a better ability to look at procedures, permission slips, chaperones, the buddy system, knowing who knows how to swim.”

Water safety is an important message for everyone, Bott said.

“You can drown in a cup of water,” he said.

As the Lewiston School Department mulls new procedures, Webster said he hopes the state park service also considers changes.

Stressing he is not absolving the school district from responsibility, Webster said state parks “could do a better job alerting groups as to what their level of responsibility is, or should be.” That could include signs indicating the depth of the roped off area, Webster said.

“I have no doubt there was undue comfort in viewing that roped-off area,” he said.

And if, for example, best practices recommend one lifeguard for every 25 students, and a group arrives with 100 or more students to only one park lifeguard, “then the park service needs to be very clear on what they will do and what they will not do,” Webster said.

The report says there was not a safety talk from park employees June 12, as is normally done. Bott has said there was a safety talk.

Bott said Tuesday the report was inaccurate on that point: There was a safety talk. It was not given to the entire group, but to three of the 11 chaperones.

When the bus pulled up and students and adults got off and dispersed, Bott said, the lifeguard gave a safety talk to three chaperones who were there “while the other eight were off in different parts of the grounds.”

After reading the report, Bott said, “It clearly shows the lifeguard on duty responded immediately when it was determined that the child was last seen in the water.”

A substantial period of time went by between when Rayan, 13, went underwater and when the lifeguard understood the boy was in the water, Bott said.

The 12-page report shows how initial conversations about Rayan’s possible location were confusing. Some people thought Rayan could be in the bathroom, and there was little sense of urgency, Bott said. People “were searching the grounds, the outhouse, checking with other people, lining up kids.”

The report also shows the teacher who serves as team leader told the lifeguard Rayan might be in the water, and asked him to search there.

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