Teenager’s tragic death hits home
The tragic drowning of Johannesburg teenager Enoch Mpianzi, 13, has rattled the Jewish community to its core, with questions being asked about the safety of our children.
Mpianzi, a Grade 8 pupil at Parktown Boys’ High School, died on 15 January in the Crocodile River during a water activity at the Nyati Bush and River Break Lodge in Brits in the North West.
He was attending an orientation camp organised by the school. Similar trips are offered at Jewish schools each year to new intakes in a bid for pupils to bond and form friendships.
According to reports, Mpianzi was not wearing a life jacket when the makeshift raft he was on overturned. His disappearance went unnoticed for 17 hours, and he was announced missing only after officials did a headcount the following day.
“There are so many unanswered questions, but gross negligence stares you in the face, and all the money in the world will never reunite this little boy with his grieving mother,” said a Johannesburg-based attorney specialising in personal injury work and insurance litigation.
The tragedy is a frightening wake-up call for parents and school officials at Jewish schools, who are having another look at school safety protocols and security measures. Parents, already hyper vigilant when it comes to their children’s safety, are now questioning the complexities of consent and indemnity forms. Mpianzi’s death has raised many questions about who will be held liable for the tragedy, and to what extent the school can be held accountable for his death.
According to legal experts, most of these indemnities incorporate legal terminology that many people might not fully understand. They usually contain terms that the person in charge of your child acts in loco parentis (“in the place of a parent”) while in their care; that all tours and outings shall be taken at your child’s own risk; and that you indemnify the school, including all staff from any and all claims that might arise in connection with damage or loss or injury. Parents are also asked to indemnify and absolve the school against any loss, damage, injury expenses, and costs suffered or incurred by your child in the course of the outing.
“It’s always unsettling to sign these forms, and there are many times we are required to do so,” said one parent who preferred to remain anonymous. “The school is effectively excluded from any and all liability to do with your child when you sign,” she said.
“Parents are caught between a rock and a hard place,” said the attorney, “if you don’t sign the indemnity, the school won’t take your child on the outing or excursion, yet the indemnity protects the school should anything happen during the outing.”
However she said, “One can never contract out of gross negligence, and I believe the school/camp in this case acted in a grossly negligent manner. You can never indemnify yourself against gross negligence.
“To the extent that the school or camp was reckless, the indemnity won’t help,” said another attorney who wishes to remain anonymous. “An indemnity isn’t bullet proof, the school or camp still has to act reasonably. Sending a child into a river without a life jacket and a helmet is reckless. You could reasonably anticipate that this could lead to catastrophic circumstances, so it’s unlikely that a court will uphold an indemnity,” he said.
Marc Falconer, the principal of Herzlia High School in Cape Town, told the SA Jewish Report that this was a “terrible tragedy for everyone concerned”.
“No school intends for harm to come to any pupil. Some schools are much better prepared for trips and excursions. I think it’s appropriate to recognise the exceptional work that the Community Security Organisation (CSO) does at Herzlia and at most Jewish institutions. This preparation, infrastructure, and support should make parents feel as secure as one can be in an uncertain world. The CSO’s structures are so superior to every other school I have worked at, here and abroad,” he said.
“Accidents and tragedies can always happen, and sometimes they are entirely unavoidable – crime, road and travel related, natural disasters. The better the preparation, the more chance that things can be contained and the damage limited. To ensure that there is clear communication is probably the most important of the lot.”
Falconer said it was important to ensure that everyone from the pupils, parents, to all the teachers/supervisors were properly briefed.
“They should know the goals and outcomes, have all the correct and required equipment, and be aware of the dangers. Supervisors are properly briefed about what they are watching for, specifically where the danger ‘hot spots’ are,” he said.
He said parents were “vital partners” with the school to ensure that safety is taken seriously.
“It’s not just the school’s job to ensure that appropriate clothing and equipment has been packed for excursions and trips, and that no alcohol and other contraband is in the luggage. This can’t just be the school’s responsibility.”
“Planning is important too. For example, good ratios of supervisors to those being looked after. [There needs to be] a clear programme of action and a procedure to deal with emergencies.”
Lorraine Srage, the principal of King David High School, Linksfield, said the school takes all necessary precautions both on and off campus to cover all events and outings. “The safety and security policy includes a venue and route assessment by the CSO, with buses checked before departure.
“A full reconnaissance of the camp venue is undertaken before the students arrive to evaluate any potential dangers. All events off campus are accompanied by a trained medic with basic first-aid equipment and an assessment of the nearest hospital or clinic is taken.”
She said that in the case of overnight camps, parents complete an indemnity form, and provide all relevant personal medical information for their child. “The students are expected to bring their own prescribed medication. All reasonable precautions are taken. The staff and students are made aware of the programme and activities, and any sensitive areas are cordoned off. Students are informed of specific clothing, footwear, or any other equipment required. Senior students and members of staff oversee the activities in small groups. Supervision is provided at all times, and a headcount is done on a regular basis.”
Srage said that when undertaking practical activities, “evaluation of the ground conditions is done and if any dangers are suspected, the programme is modified. For example, river analysis after heavy rainfall.”
Students are never forced to do an activity that they don’t feel comfortable doing, she said.
“On the school campus, we have regular evacuation drills, and more than 40 staff and students who are trained in first aid,” said Srage.
Rob Long, the principal of Yeshiva College, said, “In light of this incident, I’m sure every school is re-evaluating their safety policies and procedures, and making sure that these are being carried out on the ground. We certainly are. Everyone is being hyper-vigilant, re-thinking what they are doing, and making sure that policies are being correctly carried out. Safety comes first. No matter what.”