Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: A Sharjah court’s verdict last week holding a school and two teachers responsible for the death of a four-year-old boy during a swimming lesson at Australian International School in Sharjah last November is a wake-up call for UAE schools, according to local pool safety experts. Two teachers were convicted of negligence and ordered to pay Dh30,000 each in blood money by the Sharjah Misdemeanours Court on On May 14 for the incident on November 14 when the Emirati boy wandered from the changing room and his teacher’s gaze to return to the water.

The school was also ordered to pay Dh140,000 in blood money for negligence and failing to take the necessary protective measures in and around its swimming pool in what was an unprecedented ruling.

Legislation now states that all new pools must have safety features in place to pass inspection from their respective municipality.

- Paul Peters of Aqua Net

“Ultimately the school should be responsible for the safety of kids and this might be a wake-up call for a number of schools, especially as they are having to pay blood money,” said Paul Peters of Aqua Net, whose company installs nets and fencing around swimming pools to prevent children from drowning. Nets range from Dh5,000 to Dh7,000 on a medium pool, while fences for the same size pool range from Dh5,000 to Dh10,000.

“Legislation now states that all new pools must have safety features in place to pass inspection from their respective municipality,” he added, “But I’m not sure what the rule is for schools. We’ve gone into a few schools for other jobs [doors and locks] and there are some that just don’t have any protection around their pool.

The best course of action will always be to ensure that the pool areas are inaccessible when not supervised by an adult.

- David Thorne of Babysecure

“Actual regulations are very vague and differ depending on what emirate you are in. They are also a mish mash of directives that don’t differentiate between domestic and public pools. For instance the directive that there must be a lifeguard on duty at all times is just not applicable for villas or indeed feasible for other pools.”

Fatima Aloo from Mak Pools, which has introduced an alarm system to the market that alerts bystanders when someone enters the water and costs just Dh900, said: “I’m very surprised that we haven’t had more interaction with schools. They seem to rely more on lifeguards but that doesn’t always work as they only have one set of eyes and can’t see everything.

There have been a variety of laws put in place over the years, however these vary from emirate to emirate.

- Christopher Nuestro from the Protect-A-Child Pool Fence Company

“We introduced the alarm because people seem more concerned with aesthetics than safety and don’t want to see a net or fence obstruct their view of the pool. So, we’ve worked around that mindset, but a fence or cover should still be the priority.”

David Thorne of Babysecure, who also provide nets and fencing, agreed. “The best course of action will always be to ensure that the pool areas are inaccessible when not supervised by an adult. Unfortunately we often see systems that have been put in place that are reliant on someone physically putting on a cover or locking a door. These work well when in place, however you are still dependant on these being used properly time after time. And unfortunately complacency can set in,” he said.

Christopher Nuestro from the Protect-A-Child Pool Fence Company said: “There are rules for new pools being installed, but sometimes features are shown in the design drawings to get approval but then aren’t installed, but now the municipality is coming back to check.

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“It’s only for new pools though and that’s the problem, what about the old pools? The municipality can’t check every pool. A school is much more important though because a lifeguard cannot be there all the time, so the pool should be fenced with gates that have automatic close and lock mechanisms placed at a good height from the ground out of the reach of the children.

“I’ve no idea what the current regulations are for schools because we don’t visit them that often, maybe that’s because someone else has the contract from the ministry, I don’t know. As a parent myself though I’d like to see standard regulations applied everywhere.”

Thorne added: “There have been a variety of laws put in place over the years, however these vary from emirate to emirate, it would be nice to see a pan-UAE common understanding regarding pool safety to prevent such tragedies.”

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Aloo agreed. “I wish the government would introduce harsher rules for schools to make fences and nets mandatory with gates that are locked at all times. Dubai is melting pot of cultures and that plays a big role in how people view safety, but harsher rules and penalties for schools that don’t have safety features is the only way forward.

“Pool drownings are always avoidable if the right safety measures are in place,” she said.

Lawyer speaks

Ebrahim Al Hossani, the defence lawyer involved in the case of the four-year-old boy who drowned in Sharjah said the two teachers were found guilty because they were responsible for the swimming pool area in the school and its surroundings. He argued that despite the tragic incident that led to the boy’s death, the school applied significant safety measures.

How Sharjah reacted

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Following the incident all swimming lessons in Sharjah schools from kindergarten to grade four were cancelled until further notice. Mohammad Ahmad Al Mulla, director of the Education Department at the Sharjah Education Council, said the council would follow up on safety procedures in schools and the safety of students was a top priority. The following guidelines were also issued:

1) Use of the school swimming pool is at all times limited to students in the third grade or higher.

2) Schools must obtain written parental consent before a student is allowed to participate in any swimming pool activity. The consent letter must be renewed at the start of every school year.

3) All doors from the dressing room must be equipped with electronic locks and an alarm device to detect any unauthorised entry to the swimming pool area.

4) Surveillance cameras must be installed at all entrances to the swimming pool area.

5) The appointment of qualified guards is contingent to the review and formal approval of the Sharjah Education Council.

6) A qualified lifeguard must be present at all times during any and all activities in the swimming pool area. No student should be in the swimming pool area without the presence of a lifeguard on duty.

7) Teachers and supervisors attending the students’ activities in the swimming pool area must ensure that all students are accounted for and are outside the swimming pool area at the end of every activity.

Sharjah verdict a wake-up call for UAE schools, say pool experts
Image Credit: Gulf News