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Teacher ‘thought pontoon that capsized in French lake was safety feature’

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 2022-10-04
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A teacher who was in charge of a school trip to France where a 12-year-old girl drowned after a pontoon capsized has told a court he thought the platform was a safety feature.

Steven Layne was quizzed on Tuesday about the death of Jessica Lawson, in the Palais de Justice in the French town of Tulle, and said there was not “any sort of distress” from students or the lifeguard during the incident.

The court was told that 24 children from Wolfreton School near Hull, aged 12 to 17, had been swimming in a lake near Limoges in 2015 when the plastic pontoon overturned.

The 46-year-old teacher said he did not immediately tell children to get out of the water because his “first action… was to look towards the lifeguard to gauge his reaction”.

Another teacher on the trip, Chantelle Lewis, told the court she “started to panic” during the incident and “asked ‘where’s Jess’?”

Mr Layne, Ms Lewis, fellow teacher Daisy Stathers, lifeguard Leo Lemaire and the local authority in Liginiac are all accused of the French equivalent of manslaughter by gross negligence.

Jessica’s parents, Tony and Brenda, watched from the public gallery and were assisted by an interpreter.

Beginning proceedings, the head of jurisdiction in Tulle, Marie-Sophie Waguette, said Jessica was found underneath the pontoon after it overturned.

She said there should have been a minimum of three chains to secure the platform but a picture shown to the court displayed only two.

Mr Layne was asked, with the assistance of an interpreter, what the guidelines were for accompanying children on swimming trips in the UK, before being asked if he knew the guidelines for France.

He told the court he did not know and that he had not asked.

Mr Layne said: “We checked with the lifeguard and we concluded the conditions were OK.

“When I spoke to the students I did say they could use the pontoon but I told them in using it they weren’t to do any diving, not to be silly, to respect other people around it and to not scream and shout.

“I did tell them not to go diving and not to do any bombing in a tuck position.”

Mr Layne told Ms Waguette the children were not attempting to form a pyramid on the platform.

He said: “I didn’t think it was dangerous.

I checked over my shoulder to see the lifeguard, to see his reaction as he was looking in the direction of the platform - but there was no distress from him

“When the platform capsized I checked first of all whether there was any sort of distress from the students.

“I checked over my shoulder to see the lifeguard, to see his reaction as he was looking in the direction of the platform – but there was no distress from him.

“Just as the pontoon went over a couple (of children) did try to get to get it right again and I told them to leave it alone and get out of the water.

“As the kids were coming out the water we did quickly check to see who was missing and realised that Jessica Lawson was missing.”

Mr Layne was then quizzed by a prosecutor who asked why he had not reacted to the pontoon capsizing.

The witness said: “I did react by looking at the lifeguard to gauge their reaction to see what they thought of the situation.

“I could see that platform was tilted but it was not unstable.”

Speaking about whether the platform was identified as a risk before the children swam near it, Mr Layne continued: “When we did the risk assessment I actually saw the pontoon and I saw it as a safety feature.

“Should they swim, they could use it as something to hang on to.”

Giving evidence later on Tuesday, Ms Lewis was asked if she was “refusing to accept your responsibility”, to which she replied “no”.

The 34-year-old, who was a PE teacher at the time, became emotional before saying: “I started to panic and asked ‘where’s Jess’?”

Ms Lewis said she had spoken to the schoolgirl’s parents because she was one of the younger children on the trip.

She told the court she “wouldn’t say there was a risk” because the children knew how to swim.

Asked why she had not ordered the children to get out of the water when the pontoon capsized, she said: “It was quick… these were split seconds.”

The case continues, and is expected to last two days.

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