Off Campus Excursions: A sad reminder to school leaders
Tim Fehring was a 15-year-old student at Blackburn High School, a public school in Victoria. Tim studied German in Year 9 and was headed off on the School Biennial International Cultural Tour to Europe in June 2019.
At the beginning of the trip while in Berlin, Tim began vomiting from time to time. Upon arrival in Munich, Tim began to suffer from stomach cramps, loss of appetite and further vomiting. After self-treatment for a few days and the continued display of symptoms, the School staff, in consultation with Tim’s parents, and Family GP, obtained over the counter medication for symptom relief. While still in Munich, staff sought medical attention as Tim’s symptoms deteriorated. This medical attention was after the School staff encouraged Tim to engage in the trip activities despite his obvious decline in health and wellbeing.
After this medical treatment and activities in Germany, the group travelled to Vienna where Tim continued to show signs of being very unwell. Tim asked to attend a hospital upon arrival in Austria. However, the School staff encouraged Tim to partake in the planned activities for the day. After this, the Principal of the School, School staff on the trip and Tim’s parents planned for Tim to return home to Victoria on 29 June 2019.
However, after review by a doctor on 28 June (the day before his planned departure) to obtain a fit-to-fly certificate, Tim collapsed outside the doctor’s surgery. He was transferred by ambulance to a paediatric intensive care unit where treatment was administered and where he tragically died about 2 hours later. His death was caused by hypoxic-ischaemic encephalopathy complicating cardiac arrest in the setting of bronchopneumonia and gastroenteritis.
The Coroner’s recommendation to the Victorian Department of Education was to increase the staff to student ratio on all school excursions overseas. This recommendation was to provide flexibility for staff and students to seek medical treatment whilst managing the safety requirements of all other staff and students. At the time, the Department’s policy only required two staff members to be on the trip, which and personally affected the staff’s ability to assist Tim in getting medical assistance at an earlier stage of the progression of his symptoms.
Accordingly, in light of this, schools must consider how to fulfil their duty of care to students on these activities. What reasonable steps must be taken to avoid reasonably foreseeable risks materialising? Some of the factors to be taken into account are:
- the probability that the harm would occur if care were not taken;
- the likely seriousness of the harm;
- the burden of taking precautions to avoid the risk of harm; and
- the social utility of the activity that creates the risk of harm.
Further information on the law concerning off campus activities, please see David Ford’s paper on “Managing the Risks in Off-Campus Activities” available here.
What does it mean for schools and school leaders?
With the re-opening of international borders and travel more generally, we remind you that accurate risk management and mitigation processes and policies are required for all off campus excursions, mindful that these obligations extend to international travel. With the increased health concerns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and its side effects, schools must ensure that they are aware of their legal obligations under the law, and their obligations to fulfil their duty of care to their students.