The parents of an Ottawa teen killed in an explosion during school shop class are urging the Ontario government to call a coroner’s inquest into his death, but Education Minister Laurel Broten says her hands are tied.
“One of the most challenging things I have to do in this job is to call schools after the death of a student,” she said Thursday.
“That being said, our structure in Ontario is to keep the politics out of the calling of coroner’s inquests.”
Pat and Sheri Leighton asked the coroner to investigate, saying they still have safety concerns that haven’t been addressed since their son Eric was killed in May 2011.
The 18-year-old died in hospital hours after being critically injured in shop class at Mother Teresa High School when a steel drum he was working on ignited and blew up.
Students were making barbecues out of the barrels, and the barrel Eric Leighton was cutting with a hand grinder exploded in a blast that was felt throughout the school.
Five others, including the male teacher, were sent to hospital with minor injuries as a precaution due to the concussive effects of the explosion.
Conservative education critic Lisa MacLeod said the coroner hasn’t accepted or declined the Leightons’ request for an inquest. Ms. Broten said it’s up to the coroner to make the call, not the government.
The couple said they just want to know what led to their son’s death and whether the teacher did his “due diligence.”
“We just need answers to questions that we still have that nobody seems to want to step up and tell us,” said Sheri Leighton.
Last month, the Ottawa Catholic District School Board was fined $275,000 for a violation of the Occupational Health and Safety Act that resulted in Eric’s death.
A Ministry of Labour investigation found that the barrel he was using had been washed out with a flammable cleaner. The barrel had been stored with its caps closed prior to the class project, allowing flammable cleaning vapours to accumulate inside.
The investigation also found that the school board did not have adequate procedures in place to ensure hot work on drums or containers could be carried out safely.
Pat Leighton said he’s concerned that the teacher didn’t need approval for the project, which seemed like an odd assignment for a transportation class. The teacher should have also had more knowledge of the products he was using, he said.
“The barrel, prior to that, was safe to a point,” Mr. Leighton said. “It probably wouldn’t have exploded like it did. But the product they used, without the proper knowledge, is the reason why Eric isn’t here today.”
The family has been in touch with the school principal, who was “very apologetic,” he said. But they received no help from the school board and haven’t “heard a word” from the teacher.
“Not a condolence letter, not a message passed on to the principal, to us, from anybody,” Mr. Leighton said. “So there’s virtually no closure whatsoever.”
Eric was a talented hockey player and his team retired his jersey last year, even though he only played with them for three months, Sheri Leighton said.
“They loved my child like there was no tomorrow,” she said. “I just wish that the school board and the teacher had the same respect.”
Kaitlyn, Eric’s 17-year-old sister, said she was just two classrooms away from her brother at the time of the blast.
A lot of students are afraid to speak up when they don’t feel safe, she said. But she’s changed since her brother died.
“I’m not afraid to go to a teacher anymore ... I’m not afraid to tell people that I don’t think this is right, it’s not safe for myself.
“And that’s what every other student should do for themselves as well.”