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The Watchman: No one will ever know how many schoolchildren got home safely because of Keith Thomas

No one will ever know how many schoolchildren got home safely because of Keith Thomas

Keith Thomas, who is about to retire as risk manager of the Manitoba School Boards Association, was partly responsible for implementing safety measures on buses and playgrounds to keep kids safe.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Keith Thomas, who is about to retire as risk manager of the Manitoba School Boards Association, was partly responsible for implementing safety measures on buses and playgrounds to keep kids safe.

Raymond Cadieux, Joshua Harder, Kelsey Brewster — children who went off to school, and in a parents’ nightmare too unbearable to imagine, did not come home.

How many more children came home safely because Keith Thomas was on the job for 36 years, no one will ever know.

It’s amazing Thomas was the first to hold the job in Manitoba, even more amazing when he says only three other provinces have such a job.

Thomas retires this month as risk manager for the Manitoba School Boards Association, a job that began as handling collective insurance for the public school system and morphed into being Manitoba’s pre-eminent school safety watchdog.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/4/2015 (907 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Raymond Cadieux, Joshua Harder, Kelsey Brewster — children who went off to school, and in a parents’ nightmare too unbearable to imagine, did not come home.

How many more children came home safely because Keith Thomas was on the job for 36 years, no one will ever know.

It’s amazing Thomas was the first to hold the job in Manitoba, even more amazing when he says only three other provinces have such a job.

Thomas retires this month as risk manager for the Manitoba School Boards Association, a job that began as handling collective insurance for the public school system and morphed into being Manitoba’s pre-eminent school safety watchdog.

Raymond Cadieux was seven when he died beneath the wheels of the bus from which he’d just alighted in St. Norbert in 1996.

Joshua Harder was even younger, only five, when he drowned in the shallow end of the Margaret Grant Pool on a school field trip the second last day of school.

Kelsey Brewster was 13 this year when she died a few days after taking a terrible tumble during a school ski trip on a hill she wasn’t qualified or authorized to try.

The deaths of Raymond and Joshua led to massive changes in policy and procedures — the same may happen next month when teachers and ski hill operators meet to revise guidelines for ski trips.

In the 10 years before Thomas started, close to 30 young people died celebrating their graduation from high school. Since then, two.

Safe grads, retractable arms on school buses, adults in the pool with vulnerable little kids, even playground equipment that doesn’t cause back injuries and broken bones — Thomas is quick to emphasize he had a lot of help in making schools safer places. But, always, when parents and teachers and kids looked to make the system safer, Thomas was the guy.

"A lot of history will walk out the door with him," said Paul Olson, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society.

While some teachers were unhappy with Thomas’s comments on supervision during the ski trip that led to Kelsey Brewster’s death, Olson said teachers think highly of his career achievements.

"He always takes our perspective into consideration. Organizationally, our staff could not say enough good things about him," Olson said.

All those deaths throughout the '70s on grad night — the carnage, tragedy and senselessness — are tough to imagine now. That was before safe grad.

Kelvin students hit a tree, Thomas recalled. "There were a couple of kids near Flin Flon who drowned," and there was a multi-fatality accident in Dauphin.

"Some of the kids who felt they needed a party came to Winnipeg," and drank, and drove, Thomas lamented.

"I’d been here maybe a year when we received a call from the Department of Education. The idea was to set up a safe grad program similar to Saskatchewan’s."

Thomas oversaw the provincewide introduction of safe grad. Parents of Grade 12 students start planning in September, chaperone the event in force and do all the driving. And no student leaves the party until he or she is signed out by a sober parent or designated guardian.

"That’s the name of the game, to get them home safely," Thomas said.

Having a drinking age of 18 allows safe grad to help educate the kids about responsibilities and consequences, he said. Thomas recognizes some grads are still 17: "We’re not foolish enough to think that underage kids won’t get a drink."

The point is, the deaths all but stopped.

There was a tragedy when students drove in from Winkler to party some more in Winnipeg after their own grad at home — one died, the rest were injured.

"The other bad one was two years ago in The Pas — a young man jumped out of the car on the way home. They’d done everything right."

And, he warned, "There are still places where kids will do their own thing — we try to discourage that. We’ll call the police if we hear about it."

Students’ safety is a "huge priority," said River East Transcona School Division superintendent Kelly Barkman — in the classroom, on a school trip or celebrating their graduation. And school officials "feel better knowing there are procedures in place to help keep them safe. We’ve appreciated the input on procedures that Keith has provided to school divisions over the years. His depth of knowledge and advice has been invaluable to us."

Thomas can never forget the call he received that Raymond Cadieux had died seconds after getting off his school bus near his St. Norbert home.

"I remember driving out to see where it happened. That was a terrible day, as was little Joshua Harder."

Manitoba overhauled its idea of school bus safety, the most visible being the retractable arms that force children crossing in front of the bus to move far enough away that they’re always visible to the driver.

"The arms were a major step, that, and the lights on the top," said Thomas, who pointed out the rooftop lights are so strong they’re visible far away through snow, rain, fog and darkness.

It was June 27, 2002, when 95 kids from St. Adolphe School celebrated the end of school by going into the city for a pool party. There were three lifeguards in the pool, five teachers and an adult chaperone sat chatting on the pool deck, and tiny Joshua, who was over his head even in the shallow end, slipped beneath a large inflatable and drowned unseen. The resulting inquest placed blame on pretty much every adult involved.

"The court ordered we produce a safety manual," Thomas said. Now, "Schools are very good on that. You need to have a lifeguard, and there are adult-to-child ratios that must be obeyed. No safe supervision, no one goes in the water," and that includes school outings that happen to offer swimming opportunities along the way. He’s told high schools not to allow swimming in a hotel pool on a band trip if there is no lifeguard.

"I’m sure the same thing will happen with ski trips. I’ve been asked to set up a day in early May," which Thomas will attend, even though he’ll be officially retired.

There will be teachers and staff from five ski hills. "We’re going to go through the manual."

The province’s chief medical examiner is still determining whether to call an inquest into Kelsey’s death. The MSBA guidelines call for extensive preparation before students go on a school ski trip, and once at the hill, they’re evaluated by professionals and are told which hill or hills are within their capabilities, and which they’re forbidden to go near.

But it’s doubtful if anything has consumed as much of Thomas’s time as playgrounds.

Just try now to find an old-fashioned wooden teeter-totter constantly thumping a child’s spine, or a slide full of slivers, or a rusty rapid roundabout centrifugally flinging kiddies in all directions.

"Playgrounds have been one of our successes," Thomas said.

"We have trained hundreds of people over the last 10 to 15 years, what to look for when you do playground inspections. We expect (schools) to inspect their equipment every Monday morning."

Remember sand as a base, that turned into concrete when wet? Or pea gravel or wood chips, set alight by vandals? Playgrounds now use engineered wood fibre. "One of the great benefits (is) you can take a wheelchair on it," Thomas said.

For all the progress and safety improvements, he’s bitterly disappointed the province won’t go to court with external camera footage of drivers caught flagrantly zooming by a school bus stop sign and flashing lights as kids get on and off.

"That, to me, has always been an annoyance that the province hasn’t gone to bat for us, to make that legal," Thomas said. "The highways that come into Winnipeg from the bedroom communities are the worst."

Education Minister Peter Bjornson did not respond to an interview request.

Conservative education critic Wayne Ewasko saw no reason why photos of law-breaking drivers taken from school buses would not stand up in court.

"He’s been a solid contributor," Ewasko said of Thomas. "He’s tried to do his best to keep kids safe."

If red light cameras stand up, Thomas reasoned, "Why can’t that happen for school buses?"

He bemoaned the argument often advanced fulfilling his most fervent retirement wish — that the camera "doesn’t identify who’s driving the car. That doesn’t matter for red light cameras. To me, that’s been a disappointment."

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

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