In the months following this heart-breaking experience, the school enlisted outside help to analyze what could be done to avoid this kind of situation in the future. The final report, authored by Ross Cloutier looked at such issues as the level of risk management; governance and decision-making; planning and communication; and the general culture of the school within which such trips were part of the “tradition” and “expectation” of students in some of the more senior classes.
Perhaps the most telling comment, and one that has resonated with so many other schools over the years, was around the issue of informed consent. One of the questions that arose was the extent to which parents truly understood the nature of the risks involved. The report saw this as a mutual responsibility.
A school and/or its teachers should not be placed in the position where they are making decisions about what level of risk is acceptable to a family. Parents have the responsibility to make these decisions, but in order to do so they need access to a significant amount of program- and activity-related information. The parents also need to be diligent in carrying out their responsibility in this regard.
In this particular case, a great deal of information went home about the logistics of the trip and descriptions of the activities. However, the past practice of having parent information evenings had disappeared a few years earlier, sparked by the decreasing numbers of parents who attended and the general assumption that, after “all these years”, everyone knew about the nature of the experience and the potential risks involved.
In all of our schools we constantly run into the danger of a similar kind of complacency on the part of both staff and parents. As certain activities become “annual” and then become “a tradition”, there is always the tendency for a school to communicate less and less and for parents to rely primarily on conversations with other families to get their information and reassurances.
As Cloutier noted:
During interviews with parents it became clear that many parents had not closely read the information provided them by the outdoor education program. Although numerous parents are under the impression that they signed a “waiver form” rather than a “consent form,” the general impression is that all parents trust [the school], and most parents would sign almost any form required by [the school] without a great deal of scrutiny. In numerous cases, parents signed these forms without reading them.
In the original it refers to “STS” rather than “the school” but I have changed it to emphasize the broad implication for all of our schools. Parents trust us. If the school sends home something to be signed, they sign it and send it back. That puts an extra level of responsibility on our shoulders to ensure not just that we inform parents clearly, but also that we make every effort to ensure that they read and understand what we are telling them.
At my school we are often asking for parental consent to take a field trip, or increase service or bring in outside supports. It is always our responsibility to make certain that that consent is given in a “fully informed” fashion. As long as we keep those lines of communication wide open, and constantly check for understanding and concurrence, we have the best chance of working in partnership for the best interests of our students.
I spent a lot of time at STS during the period of this tragedy and the years of healing that followed and I have nothing but respect and admiration for the staff, administration and Board of the school and the ownership, responsibility and dedication that they demonstrated in moving forward afterward. This was an extreme and almost unimaginable tragedy. But the lessons learned are not confined simply to high risk or unusual ventures. They should provide guidance for all of our dealings with parents every day.
Boards and Senior Administrators have learned a lot about risk management over the past decade. Policies are more proscriptive, procedures are tighter and faculty and staff more aware of their responsibilities. Having said that, as Ross Cloutier noted in 2003 the real danger is for a school to become complacent, for corners to be cut, or procedures to loosen with a turnover of Head or faculty. Consequently it is essential that Boards continue to ask the questions that keep the issue front and centre. A family’s world can change in an instant; and, so can a school’s. It is a lesson that no-one wants to learn over.