Thursday, September 26, 2013

Changes made to Winchester program after canoeing incident

By Meghan Foley Sentinel Staff

WINCHESTER — Better communication with the local police department is among the changes being made to a summer program for school-age children in Winchester after a canoeing trip went wrong last month.
Winchester police Officer Mike T. Tollett said that at a meeting Monday, school officials went over with parents what happened that led to three children becoming separated from the group they were canoeing with on the Ashuelot River Aug. 15. The children were enrolled in the ACCESS program, the Winchester School District’s after-school program, which also runs activities in the summer.
“What it basically came down to was a lack of communication between the parties involved in the outing that day,” Tollett said.
Not everyone had walkie-talkies or other means of communication to determine the location of everyone on the river once the group became separated, he said. The group also didn’t stay together like it was supposed to, he said.
The children, who were between the ages of 7 and 10, were rescued by firefighters after beaching their canoe on the side of the river. No one was injured.
“It’s really unfortunate and incredibly unacceptable that this happened,” ACCESS Director Jeremy S. Miller said Wednesday.
The program has offered the canoe trip for the past seven years, and until August, never had an incident, he said.
The students on the canoe trip were studying root systems, and had put their canoes in the river by the Coombs Bridge, he said.
There were four canoes in all, with a counselor from ACCESS in the lead canoe, and the 4-H leader coordinating the day trip in the last canoe, Miller said. He declined to provide the name of the counselor and leader.
Before putting their canoes in the river, the leader, who has been running the trip for ACCESS for the past seven years, gave the students a one-hour tutorial on canoeing, paddling and safety, Miller said. She also went over what they should do if they became separated from the group, and where to beach their canoes if they got tired, he said.
Each student wore a double-knotted life vest, he said.
The three canoes went ahead of the leader on the windy section of river, he said. She eventually caught up with them, but on the way back, the group became separated, he said.
The students paddling one of the canoes got tired and beached the vessel near one of the suggested spots, where the 4-H leader later met them.
The other adult got out of eyesight and earshot from children in the other canoe and called 911, he said.
Meanwhile, those children had pulled their canoe over to the river embankment, got out, and sat along the shoreline, Miller said. They were sitting on their life vests in an attempt to stay dry when firefighters found them, he said.
“No one was in the water or on an island,” Miller said.
The adult no longer works for ACCESS, he said. He didn’t specify further if the person left or was fired.
To make sure an incident like this doesn’t happen again, all ACCESS counselors will have walkie-talkies while on trips, and certain students will be trained to use them in case something happens to one of the adults, Miller said.
Trip plans will be filed with the Winchester Police Department from now on, and will include the beginning and end locations; times students and counselors are expected at those locations; the number of students on the trip; names of the trip chaperones and their contact information; Miller’s name and contact information; and the make and model of vehicles used on the trip, he said.
In addition, information about the next day’s activities and trips at ACCESS will be sent home to parents the night before, he said.

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