National Newswatch

A Toronto teacher accused in the drowning of a student on a school canoe trip fell short of his responsibility to keep the kids in his care safe, even in his approach to planning the excursion, a prosecutor argued Friday as she delivered her closing submissions. 

Crown Attorney Anna Stanford urged the judge in the case to consider the totality of Nicholas Mills's actions in deciding whether he was criminally negligent in the boy's death, rather than weighing each of the teacher's decisions individually. 

"The swimming event on that day cannot be considered in isolation," she said. "Mr. Mills engaged in a course of conduct leading up to and including the trip that undermined the safety of all the students on the trip and ultimately caused Jeremiah Perry's death. Each interconnected act or omission by Mr. Mills put Jeremiah and others in danger."

Mills, a teacher at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute, organized and oversaw the July 2017 trip to Algonquin Provincial Park during which 15-year-old Perry drowned. He has pleaded not guilty to criminal negligence causing death.

Stanford alleged Mills ignored safety rules in planning and carrying out the trip, including in allowing Perry -- who she argued could not swim -- to go in the water without a life-jacket. 

She pointed to the teen having failed a mandatory swimming test ahead of the trip, along with more than a dozen of his peers, who she said were also allowed to swim without life-jackets.  

There was a list of students, with a "P" or an "F" to indicate whether they had passed or failed that test, which Stanford alleged Mills did not share with other supervisors on the trip. 

"A reasonable person in the circumstances would have kept a copy of that document, made a clear note of the students who had failed and used that information to ensure the students were as safe as they could be around the water," she said. "He didn't do that." 

Mills testified he "scanned" the results and believed he had seen a "P" beside Perry's name, but the Crown alleged he made that up after the teen's death.

Stanford said Mills also failed to warn the students' parents about the risks of the trip and did not tell them if their kids had failed the prerequisite swim test. 

"Mr. Mills lied to the parents about all of this because he knew that he would not get approval for this trip unless he did," she said. "If he had been forthright to the parents about the risks, it is unlikely that this trip would have happened."

The teacher, who took the stand last week, has acknowledged he did not follow some rules imposed by the school board because he felt they were impractical or unnecessary, including that all lifeguards on the trip be over 18 years old.

Mills testified that the guidelines for overnight canoe trips set by the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association don't align with standards and practices used in commercial excursions, private trips and outings organized by Scouts Canada.

Stanford told the judge Friday that Mills's role as a teacher affects the standard to which he is beholden. 

"This was a school excursion, a high-care one," she said. "And on a daily basis, especially in a city like Toronto, parents place the care of their students in the hands of virtual strangers."

She said that's why safety is at the forefront of school board policies.

"The complete and utter disregard for these rules put in place by Mr. Mills' employer specifically to protect students -- including Jeremiah Perry -- is indicative of the wanton recklessness with which Mr. Mills approached these students' safety," Stanford said. 

Closing submissions in Mills's case began Thursday, with the defence arguing the teacher's conduct did not meet the threshold for a criminal conviction.

Defence lawyer Phil Campbell argued Mills's conduct should not be measured against the best practices of experts, but rather what would be reasonable for the "average parent." 

"It cannot be right that Nicholas Mills can make the same choices or safer choices ... than a couple of parents or members of a club or Scout leaders or commercial outfitters, with the same kinds of kids at the same kind of location, and one be deemed criminally negligent and the other, or others, not."

Campbell argued Thursday the Crown has failed to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Perry did not know how to swim, which it says is necessary to establish negligence on the part of the teacher.

He further noted a lifeguard and two guides -- Mills and his partner -- were overseeing the group of seven students at the time that Perry drowned. 

The case is scheduled to return to court Sept. 3, when Justice Maureen Forestell will either deliver her decision or ask questions of the lawyers. Forestell said that if she has questions for the lawyers, her decision will come several weeks later. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 9, 2021.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

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