School boards urged to tighten safety policy after Whangārei Boys' High student dies in caving trip

School boards are being urged to tighten their safety policies after WorkSafe laid charges against Whangārei Boys' High School's Board of Trustees.

The school's board is accused of health and safety failures related to the death of 15-year-old student Karnin Petera on a caving trip last year.

A year ago this Thursday, a group of Whangārei Boys' High School students descended into Abbey Caves as part of a school trip.

But the caves flooded and Karnin didn't make it out.

This week, WorkSafe launched charges against the school board for failing to comply with its duty to ensure staff and students weren't put at risk during the caving expedition.

Lawyers say it's a wake-up call.

"This sends a really clear message," employment law specialist Catherine Stewart said. 

"Schools and boards of trustees must be vigilant with their health and safety management."

And it's not just for short outdoor trips.

"Overseas school trips or sporting pursuits, all those things need to be managed very carefully in accordance with the health and safety laws."

In a letter to families, the school said its thoughts remain with Karnin's whānau, his friends, and everyone who has been touched by this tragedy.

They said the school has resumed outdoor education activities after adopting a new safety management plan.

Lawyer Gretchen Stone told Newshub there could also be unintended consequences of the WorkSafe charges.

"Perhaps folk being reluctant to go onto boards, and/or schools being reluctant to take outdoor education trips. That would be of real concern."

Stone said schools usually had insurance to cover legal costs for WorkSafe investigations and potential compensation for victims.

But it doesn't cover everything.  

"What the insurance doesn't cover is any fines that WorkSafe imposes," she said. "So yes, that would need to be paid, not by individuals, but by the board."

Boards will be hoping to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again.