Wiping away tears, Jeremiah Perry’s mother testified at the trial for her son’s teacher Nicholas Mills about how protective she was of her children, all three who could not swim.
Mills, a 57-year-old physical education teacher is charged with criminal negligence causing the death of 15-year-old Jeremiah, who drowned while on a school canoe trip in July 2017.
As a single mother, Melissa Perry said she often worked three or four jobs to pay for rent and bills. She said despite the fact Jeremiah would have loved to have learned how to swim, she could not afford swimming lessons.
“When I take my kids to the beach, I only take them when the tide is low. Because if the tide is high, it’s very dangerous. You’re not supposed to be in there. None of us can swim,” explained Melissa, who remembered going to a hotel beach with the kids when they lived with her in Barbados from 2011 to 2016.
She said the children always wore flotation devices and she always waded into the water with them, facing the beach with her children closer to shore.
“If anything goes wrong, cause it’s the sea, let me go first,” said Melissa.
In September 2016, Melissa’s two sons, Marrion and Jeremiah, came to live with their father Joshua Anderson in Toronto and enrolled at C. W. Jefferys Collegiate in North York.
Anderson testified via Zoom that he was unaware if either boy knew how to swim until July 4, 2017, when he called Melissa Perry in Barbados to tell her the OPP had notified him that Jeremiah, who was on a school canoe trip to Algonquin Park with his brother and dozens of other students, had gone swimming and was missing.
“She said to me in a cold voice ‘Jeremiah can’t swim,” Anderson recalled.
Anderson, who left Guyana when Jeremiah was a baby in 2001, said he had not spent much time with his sons until they came to live with him in 2016 and said Jeremiah went back to live with his grandma briefly in Guyana from December 2016 until March 2017.
Jeremiah, who was enrolled in Grade 9, was very athletic, according to his dad. But Anderson said he had never taken him swimming and admitted he knew little about the school field trip he signed off on.
“Marrion told me briefly about swimming. That’s all I can recall discussing with them,” he said.
“They’ve been on many outings or trips with the school. That’s why I did not pay too much attention to it. And you know, I was busy with my regular life.”
Deputy Crown attorney Anna Stanford asked Anderson about a phone call he received from Mills after the boys returned from a swim test at Sparrow Lake, a requirement to go on the six-day canoe trip to Algonquin Park.
“What led you to the conversation?” asked Stanford.
Anderson explained the boys had been slacking off in school and were constantly playing video games so he told them they couldn’t go on the trip as a form of punishment.
“The next day, I received a phone call from Mr. Mills. This was the first time I knew Mr. Mills existed,” explaining he had never seen his name or talked to him before.
“He (Mills) called me and he told me that my older son Marrion told him that I said that they’re not going on the trip.”
Anderson explained that the boys had to go to summer school and worried they would miss it if they went on the trip.
“I told him (Mills) point blank, they’re not going. I also mentioned to him about summer school. He said, ‘Don’t worry about summer school … It’s just going to be for a couple of days. They won’t be missing anything.’ And was like, ‘By the way, they’re going to get a credit for it.’ He said the school already paid for it and I felt bad,” Anderson said
“He specifically said I can’t back out now because it’s already been paid for and the slot is there. He was pressuring me just to let my sons go.”
Ultimately Anderson said he let the boys go and said Mills did not mention the swim test at Sparrow Lake.
“It was all about them going on a trip. I already signed a permission slip. Because I was backing out at that time, they wouldn’t be able to fill that spot,” he said.
Court heard on opening day of the trial that Jeremiah was among a group of 15 children who failed a swim test in the days prior to the canoe trip.
Anderson was asked if he read the permission sheet from June 15, 2017 which allowed Marrion and Jeremiah to participate in the excursion.
“Did you ever pay attention to that document?” Stanford questioned.
“I don’t even know if I paid attention to it, I can’t even remember,” said Anderson.
During cross-examination, defence lawyer Philip Campbell pressed Anderson further on what he knew about the trip.
Anderson did not recall seeing the document which Mills had sent home about the REACH program which Mills had developed, nor seeing the teacher’s name on the paperwork with his number attached.
“Did you never reach out to Mr. Mills about the trip?” asked Campbell.
“I did not know who Mr. Mills was,” Anderson explained.
“When you signed permission forms, what you were doing is trusting the school?” countered Campbell.
“Yes, I guess so,” Anderson agreed.
Jeremiah’s father also admitted that when Mills called him to let his sons go, he never asked any questions.
“The conversation wasn’t like that. He was more into convincing me to let them go, and then mentioned the credit. Knowing what I know now? Yes, I would ask him a ton of questions,” Anderson agreed.
Melissa, who moved to Canada just weeks after her son drowned, told the court that Marrion is not coping well.
“Since Jeremiah died, Marrion has tried to commit suicide four times. He do not trust anyone anymore. His life — he believes it’s nothing,” said Melissa.
Mills, who remains on home assignment with the Toronto District School Board and has been out on bail since his arrest, has pleaded not guilty.