Family of Whangārei Boys’ High School student who died at Abbey Caves thank public for support

Whangārei Boys' High School

Photo: RNZ / Sam Olley

The family of a Whangārei Boys’ High School student who died during a school trip yesterday have thanked the public for their support.

Angela Young, speaking on behalf of the family of the Year 11 who died in Northland’s Abbey Caves, said: “The whānau wish to thank everyone for their love and support, we please request privacy at this time”.

Whangārei Boys’ High School principal Karen Gilbert-Smith said the school community was devastated by the student’s death.

The Year 11 student was part of a school trip on Tuesday to the caves despite Northland being under orange heavy rain warnings.

He was swept away in floodwaters, as heavy rain poured in the region.

Police continued a search for the student into the night and located a body they believe to be the missing student.

Police walk down steps towards the Abbey Caves, Whāngarei, after  searchers looking for a Whangārei Boys' High School student recovered a body.

Police walk down steps towards the Abbey Caves, Whāngarei, after searchers looking for a Whangārei Boys’ High School student recovered a body.
Photo: RNZ / Tom Taylor

In a statement on Wednesday, Gilbert-Smith said the entire school’s thoughts and aroha were with the whānau and students “even more so now that a body of one of our students tragically has been recovered”.

“It is really important for me to let you know how devastated we are that one of our whānau have lost a much loved, and treasured, son and brother … and the impact of this tragedy is being felt widely amongst our school staff, students and community.”

Gilbert-Smith said she was not in a position to provide any answers regarding the incident, out of respect for the family, and because there were investigations by police and WorkSafe underway.

Vigil for Whangārei BHS student who died in Abbey Caves - at Whangārei Anglican Church.

A vigil for the Whangārei BHS student who died in Abbey Caves was held at Whangārei Anglican Church.
Photo: RNZ / Tom Taylor

She said the school was operating as usual, and the focus of staff was to support all those impacted.

“I have asked the WBHS community to stay united and provide support where required.”

According to Stuff, security guards have been stationed at the school following outrage over the student’s death.

A spokesperson for Northern Districts Security confirmed to Stuff that guards had been sent to the school over people “being unhappy” about the tragic incident.

“There’s a lot of very upset people at the moment so we were called to help keep the school and students safe,” the spokesperson told Stuff.

The spokesperson did not confirm to Stuff how many security guards were at the school.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said his thoughts were with the family of the student.
Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was confident the government would take action on any recommendations from reviews into the student’s death.

“I think it is every parents worst possible nightmare to send your child off to school in the morning and not have then return safely home In the evening so I want to, on behalf of the whole country, send our love and support to the family who are dealing with the tragic loss.”

Hipkins said the approach schools take to outdoor education has become much more professional, but the government will always look at things to improve.

“Schools are given guidance and advice on how to navigate their way through. But if the reviews that are now going to happening highlight further changes that are needed, then of course, we would take that very seriously.”

While a number of investigations into the incident were underway Hipkins said he could not comment on them.

However, it was important they happened, he said.

Jan Tinetti

Education Minister Jan Tinetti
Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Education Minister Jan Tinetti said she wanted to take the time to support the family, principal, school, and young people involved.

“At the centre of this, we’ve got a beautiful young boy who didn’t come home yesterday and never will again and that’s absolutely tragic and we need to take that time.

“I know nobody expects their young person to go to school and not come home at the end of the day and we must make certain that or young people are safe.”

Tinetti said the tragic event had been triggering for her and brought up memories of when a student died while attending a school she was principal of.

“It’s awful, in my time as a principal, which was 20 years, it was the single worst incident that I have ever had to deal with and it still brings up emotions in me of what I had to go through at that time and what others have to go through when that happens.”

Tinetti said she was starting to have conversations with officials but would give it some time before asking questions.

“While we don’t like these events, they are often a time for us to take stock.”

Ngāti Kahu o Torongare me Ngā Hapū o Whangārei has placed a rāhui at the caves.

A security guard at the entrance to Abbey Caves, Northland, where a body was recovered during a search for a Year 11 student from Whangārei Boys' High School missing on a trip into the caves with a school party.

A security guard at the entrance to Abbey Caves, Northland, where a body was recovered during a search for a Year 11 student.
Photo: RNZ / Tom Taylor

Hapū kaikōrero Hūhana Lyndon was at the site on Tuesday evening for prayer and to offer support to the family.

Hapū members had also earlier in the day been with the family as they suffered the grief of not knowing what would happen, she said.

“The wairua does settle once you know that you have your boy back.”

Ministry of Education north leader Isabel Evans said the ministry’s traumatic incident team was at the school to give support, and any investigation would be carried out by the appropriate agency or agencies.

Tinetti said the work the trauma team did was “incredible” and they were the strongest part of the Ministry of Education.

Two Givealittle pages set up in support of the family had attracted several thousand dollars on Wednesday.

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