When Jeremiah Perry’s mother pulled a piece of plain, yellow cloth from a plaque in memory of her son, she bowed her head and wept. There on the wall was a grinning photograph of the 15-year-old accompanied by a pledge that his death would keep hundreds of thousands of others safe.
Jeremiah died on a school trip last July, drowning in Algonquin Provincial Park.
“This is a painful day for me. Something for me to remember. Today is like everything – all fresh," Melissa Perry said, standing at Toronto’s C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute, a North York high school.
Jeremiah didn’t know how to swim before going on the trip to the Ontario park. While the school had a swim test that students were required to pass before leaving, it was revealed during a board investigation in the month after the trip that half the students who went had failed the test. That group included Jeremiah. Following the trip, the two teachers who supervised the students were put on home assignment. The Ontario Provincial Police and the Office of the Chief Coroner began separate investigations into Jeremiah’s death.
Nicholas Mills, a 54-year-old teacher and trip supervisor, was charged by the OPP with criminal negligence causing death in July, just slightly more than a year after Jeremiah’s drowning. Mr. Mills is still employed by the board, director of education John Malloy confirmed Friday, pending the outcome of the charge.
Protocols have changed at the Toronto board since last year. Swim test results, which used to be provided only to the principal, are now also distributed to students and parents. The tests are repeated, being held once before the trip and again when students arrive at their destination.
“I do want to say that our policies at the time, had they been followed, would not have led to this result,” Mr. Malloy told reporters after the ceremony. “But we have, as I said, strengthened those policies and procedures to ensure that there’s no way for this to happen again.”
Jeremiah’s family packed the first two rows on Friday afternoon as the new plaque was unveiled. Former principal Monday Gala remembered Jeremiah as a boy who loved school and was often the first to arrive, along with his brother.
Jeremiah, the younger of the two boys, was seen on many occasions poking fun at his sibling’s expense. The two were close, and it was clear how much Jeremiah cared about his family, Mr. Gala said.
Before the ceremony, one relative stood looking at another plaque, just a few feet away from Jeremiah’s. It memorialized Jordan Manners – a student who was shot and killed inside the school in 2007. His plaque, too, promised to build safer schools. Another plaque is hung on the next column, remembering Violet Jia Liang, a student who died after being struck by a vehicle on her way to the school in 2013.
“Because schools are human communities, they can deal with tragedy,” Mr. Malloy said of the growing row of plaques. “We work really hard with our students to honour those that have gone before us, but also to help our students to learn and be strong as well.”