Injured student hospitalised last year at Northland school involved in Abbey Caves tragedy

By Denise Piper of Stuff

Whangārei Boys' High School

Whangārei Boys’ High School
Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The Northland high school involved in the death of a student at Abbey Caves had two other students suffer serious injuries last year.

WorkSafe is investigating after Karnin Ahorangi Petera, 15, died during a trip to the caves with his year 11 Whangārei Boys’ High School outdoor education class last month.

The caving trip took place during a heavy rain warning. Petera was swept away in floodwater.

WorkSafe has issued the school with an “improvement notice” and confirmed outdoor education activities must stop until it is satisfied risks can be safely managed.

Police are investigating Petera’s death on behalf of the coroner and the school is also doing their own internal investigation.

The Abbey Caves incident was not the first the school has been involved in recently.

Flowers outside Whangārei Boys' High School in tribute to the student who died on Tuesday on a school trip to Abbey Caves.

Flowers outside Whangārei Boys’ High School in tribute to Karnin Petera.
Photo: RNZ / Jordan Dunn

According to minutes from school board meetings, a student was seriously injured in 2022 on the old school grounds – which were considered a “significant hazard” – and another student was hospitalised.

The school’s new $50 million campus officially opened in October 2022, but the school started moving into the new buildings from May 2022.

The old school was eventually fenced off and demolished.

One student suffered a serious cut to his shin on the old school grounds, according to a health, safety and wellbeing report to the school’s board of trustees in June 2022.

The old school was listed as a significant safety hazard “with broken glass and destroyed classrooms”.

“Students are going up and vandalising this or just generally being nosey/using as a thoroughfare from the buses,” the report read, recommending the site be fenced off.

Another report said a student required hospital treatment in March 2022. Details of this event are not reported, but principal Karen Gilbert-Smith said it was not related to the construction.

The Ministry of Education, which managed the redevelopment, said the safety of students, staff, visitors and workers remained a priority at all times during construction.

Sam Fowler, head of property, infrastructure and digital, said the new campus was fenced and “completely separate from any construction activities” after the school moved in.

“The old school site was fully fenced off from the operational school prior to demolition, with signage warning of construction activities and not to enter,” Fowler said.

However, Fowler said there were times when members of the public climbed over or broke fencing to access the old school site, with police called on several occasions.

A former Whangārei Boys’ High teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing their job, said teachers and students had to work around contractors during construction.

The teacher was particularly concerned about contractors exposing the students to concrete dust and slip hazards.

June’s health and safety report acknowledged the school was operating in a building site.

“Many new hazards in the new school especially with it being a building site. These are constantly being addressed when identified,” the report read.

When questioned about the two injured students, Gilbert-Smith said she was unable to provide details about individuals.

But she said the school was very grateful to get government support to replace outdated classrooms and administration blocks with modern teaching facilities.

“This was one of the largest building projects undertaken in Whangārei in recent times and carried out while the school continued to teach more than 1300 teenage boys.

“We were pleased with the overall way the ministry, its consultants and its contractors managed the project and mitigated hazards.

“We are also proud of our students in the way the absolute vast majority adhered to the safety systems in place.”

Last month, the school’s board was told there was a fault with every pane of glass in the new school, due to incorrect rubber seals in joinery.

However, the Ministry of Education has now said this situation only applies to the school’s 26 internal sliding doors – with external windows and joinery delivered through a different subcontractor and not having the same problem.

Fowler said the problem does not pose a safety risk, but the seals will be replaced from June 10.

Stuff previously revealed WorkSafe visited the school in March 2023, after a teacher was seriously injured using unguarded machinery.

The teacher required two weeks off work to recover and the rolling machine was removed from the school’s workshop.

This story originally appeared on the Stuff website.

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