CW Jefferys Collegiate teacher Nicholas Mills not guilty of negligence in drowning of Guyana-born student

Teacher Nicholas Mills, at left and Jeremiah Perry

A Toronto teacher was found not guilty of drowning a 15-year-old student on a school canoe trip, after a judge ruled last Wednesday that his actions did not constitute a “marked and substantial deviation” against the due diligence standard.

Nicholas Mills had been charged with criminal negligence causing the death of Jeremiah Perry by drowning.

Mills, a teacher at the CW Jefferys Collegiate Institute, oversaw the July 2017 trip to Algonquin Provincial Park in which Perry passed away.

In delivering her verdict, Ontario Superior Court Judge Maureen Forestell said that while Mills made individual decisions that were justifiable in the circumstances, such as allowing weak swimmers to participate in the trip, his conduct “was below standard (of diligence) ”when he did not reassessed the risk at the bathing site.

She concluded that the failure “brought his conduct to a level of recklessness,” but did not achieve the level of “reckless and irresponsible disregard” required for a criminal conviction, nor did it represent a sufficiently significant departure from it.

“I do not find that Mr. Mills made a series of unreasonable decisions resulting in the death of Jeremiah,” she said.

Prosecutors alleged during the trial that Mills ignored safety rules when planning and carrying out the multi-day excursion and allowed Perry, who they said could not swim, to go into the water without life jacket.

Defense attorneys, meanwhile, said the Crown had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Perry could not swim, which they said is necessary to establish negligence. They also argued that Mills should not be held to a higher standard than the “average parent” on a similar trip.

Mills testified in his own defense during the trial and admitted that he did not follow certain rules imposed by the Toronto District School Board because he believed them to be impractical or unnecessary. Some of the measures would have made it impossible to make the trip, he said in a virtual court.

The teacher argued, however, that the security requirements he imposed went beyond what is commonly done in the private sector.

The Crown alleged that Mills had circumvented certain rules because he felt he “knew better”.

The court heard that the trip was part of an ongoing program for underserved youth and that students had to take a swimming test to participate.

Perry failed the test, as did nearly half of the students who took the field trip, the court heard. Several students also wore life jackets during the assessment, which violated the regulations established for overnight canoe trips.

Students who failed the swim test were supposed to take swimming lessons and participate in a second assessment, the court said. Those who failed a second time were to be offered an alternative exit.

The defense alleged the school knew the test had been altered to allow life jackets, despite testimony from the school principal, who denied that this was the case.

Mills also said he believed Perry passed the mandatory swim test, saying he saw what he thought was a “P” for “pass” next to the teenager’s name when he first saw him.

Perry went missing in the water of Big Trout Lake on July 4, 2017, and his body was found the next day by police divers.