MONTREAL — The family of a Montreal teen who drowned during a high school gym class say they intend to sue the school board and the city, alleging negligence robbed them of a boy who was the centre of their lives.
Blessing Moukoko’s parents and uncle made the announcement at their lawyer’s office Wednesday morning.
His mother, Evelyne Mavoungou-Tsonga, said she hopes the legal action will shed light on the event and help spare others the nightmare of losing a child.
“It was a big shock to learn there was nobody to look after my son when everybody knew he didn’t like water,” she said. “He didn’t know how to swim. He just wanted to learn.”
A coroner’s report found the 14-year-old spent 38 minutes at the bottom of the pool with nobody noticing during a busy gym class Feb. 15.
The report found that the teacher in charge of the class, who was a substitute, didn’t have the qualifications to teach swimming. As a result, the lifeguard on duty ended up helping teach the course and “could no longer adequately supervise the swimmers,” it read.
Coroner Louis Normandin recommended Tuesday that gym teachers be required to have a minimum of training if they are to give swimming lessons and that a lifeguard provide full-time surveillance during all courses.
He said lessons should be suspended if those conditions can’t be met. He ruled the incident a “violent accidental death.”
On Wednesday, the teen’s parents described him as an intelligent, athletic boy who loved sports but was scared of water.
Mavoungou-Tsonga and the boy’s father, Jean-Claude Moukoko, said the entire family is still struggling to understand how the tragedy could have happened.
“As a mom, when I send my child to school, I also expect them to ensure the security of my son,” she said.
Mavoungou-Tsonga said she hasn’t been able to work or sleep since she lost her son and can’t keep his image out of her mind.
She described sitting with him at the hospital as he clung to life, and feeling his body slowly go cold as he died after suffering irreparable brain damage.
The family, which immigrated to Canada when Blessing was a young child, includes several siblings and grandparents who are devastated by his death, his mother said.
She called him “the centre of our lives …. He was our champion.”
Lawyer Jean-Pierre Menard said many questions still need answering.
He said the family is hoping to view a security video that was seen by the coroner. They would like to know why a boy with almost no swimming skills wasn’t given extra help or kept out of the deep end.
He said the blame for the incident should lie not with the lifeguard and teacher but with the school and the municipal pool system that allowed the class to proceed as it did.
“This would have been preventable with a minimum of supervision,” he alleged.
Menard said the civil suit that will be filed in the coming weeks will include a claim for “considerable” damages, adding that no amount can make up for the family’s loss.
“He left for school that morning, and his mother never saw him again alive,” he said. “It’s a story you can’t put a price on.”
The boy’s uncle, Jean-Pierre Metabanzoulou, said the family intends to start a foundation in Blessing’s name that will work to ensure youth can enjoy sports and activities in a safe environment.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press