Abbey Caves tragedy: Lawyer says outdoor education guidelines 'too weak'

Flowers left outside Whangārei Boys' High School in tribute to Karnin Ahorangi Petera, who died on a school trip to Abbey Caves.
Flowers left outside Whangārei Boys' High School in tribute to Karnin Ahorangi Petera, who died on a school trip to Abbey Caves. Photo credit: RNZ/Jordan Dunn.


A health and safety lawyer believes the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Education to govern education outside the classroom are too weak and the regulation of such activities should be brought under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Investigations through WorkSafe are underway after the death of Whangārei Boys High School student Karnin Ahorangi Petera on a class caving trip earlier this week.

Lawyer Hazel Armstrong told Morning Report there were a lot of unknowns around the tragedy but something was "not going right" with the current guidelines.

"We've got adventure activity regulations under the Health and Safety at Work Act and my opinion is, unfortunately for the schools, they're exempted from these adventure activities regulations," she said.

"I think they need to be brought in under the aegis of the regulations; maybe they don't have to be registered but certainly they should have safety audits."

Armstrong said the investigation into Petera's death would not be an open and shut case.

"It might be an open and shut case in the mind of the public but when you are WorkSafe or the police you've got to prove to a criminal standard that there was a breach and you've got to find who you're going to lay the charges against."

She said it was unclear whether the school had carried out a fresh risk assessment after earlier plans to take the students on a different type of outdoor activity were changed in order to go caving.

"There's a lot of unknowns at this point in the public and so WorkSafe have got a lot of people to interview."

Armstrong said investigations would focus on who knew what, who was delegated responsibility, and what had happened.

She said while the Education Outside the Classroom 2016 guidelines were "very recent", she did not feel they were strong enough.

"I think the guidelines must be too weak, therefore I'm thinking you'd better bring them under the surveillance of WorkSafe."

Such a move would likely require additional funding for WorkSafe, she said, but she believed it was necessary to ensure education outside the classroom programmes continued.

"Too many kids are dying and the problem will be parents will lose trust in the schools and they won't want their kids to do outdoor education."