State Comptroller opens investigation into deadly school trip

During the raid, police confiscated documents and computers.

Aid arrives at the Tzafit River as a bus full of students was carried off after a storm, April 26, 2018 (Courtest Magen David Adom)
State Comptroller Yosef Shapira announced Sunday that he has opened an investigation into the tragic school trip arranged by the Bnei Zion pre-military academy in Tel Aviv, which lost ten of its students who drowned in flash floods during an excursion in southern Israel on Thursday.
The audit will be conducted by an integrated team of the State Comptroller Office’s Defense Ministry Control Division, as well as the Social and Welfare Control Division, which monitors the education system. Also participating in the audit will be the Division of Government Ministries and Government Institutions, which is responsible for the Public Security Ministry and all the bodies subordinate to it. Shapira noted that additional units from the Comptroller’s Office may be added.
The Education and Defense ministries have reportedly pointed fingers at each other over responsibility for the school trip. Pre-military preparatory programs are funded by both ministries.
Since Bnei Zion is a private institution, it is not legally required to seek approval for such excursions from the Education Ministry, which said it had not been aware of any plans for the trip.
The Education Ministry has announced the establishment of a committee to evaluate the external activities of pre-military academies. Defense Ministry representatives and members of the council of pre-military preparatory academies will also sit on the committee. The committee will examine the establishment of procedures for and supervision of such activities, with an emphasis on trips throughout the country, so that they will be conducted in an orderly and safe manner.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett returned early to Israel from New York, where he had been set to participate in Sunday’s Jerusalem Post Annual Conference.
“Two things are important to me,” he told Army Radio. “To support the families, because these are boys and girls from the 12th grade, whose classes have been traumatized by a terrible blow, an inconceivable disaster; and secondly, to manage the education system and not to say now that we can’t travel the country. We have to learn from this – that’s the most important thing.”
Earlier on Sunday, police raided Bnei Zion and confiscated documents and computers. This comes after police on Friday arrested the head of the academy and two counselors on suspicion of negligent homicide.
The police intend to use the confiscated materials to check the authenticity of the suspects’ versions of events.
The staff members are being questioned over their failure to heed flooding warnings and call off the hike, police said. One counselor was released to house arrest, but the remands of principal Yuval Kahan and counselor Aviv Bradichiv were extended by five days on Friday in Beersheba Magistrate’s Court. Justice Eitan Gonen said there were “contradictions in the versions of events” that the two had given.
The counselor who was released is the daughter of the deputy commander of the Arava Rescue Unit, Channel 2 News reported. In her interrogation, she said that she consulted her father before going on a trip and he told her: “Do not take any chances.” She said she had relayed her father’s warning to the school, but no one listened.
Channel 2 News also reported on Sunday that staff from a weather forecast company told police that staff members from the school had contacted them regarding the weather conditions and they had said that it was dangerous to travel in that area. It also reported that Kahan had contacted a weatherman from the Israeli Air Force who said that while he wasn’t an expert on floods, he knew that toward the afternoon the rains would intensify.
Kahan’s lawyers released a statement Sunday evening, saying: “Yuval is hurt and his heart is torn because of the terrible tragedy and the loss of the lives of the girls and the boy – his students and those who were going to study in the academy. Our position is that it would not be appropriate, at this time, to relate to the various publications in the media, and only to emphasize that they do not reflect things as they are. Yuval is fully cooperating with the investigative authorities, out of a desire that the enforcement authorities examine the matter thoroughly and reach the truth.”
Two of the injured students were still being treated at Soroka Medical Center, and doctors said Sunday that they were in stable condition.
Three of the victims of the flood were laid to rest on Sunday, following the seven other funerals that were held on Friday. Romi Cohen was laid to rest in her moshav Maor; Gali Balali, from Givatayim, was buried at a cemetery in Nahalat Yitzhak; and the funeral for Adi Ra’anan was held in her moshav Michmoret.
Meanwhile, the search continued for Ayman Jaber, a 47-year-old truck driver who went missing on Thursday during floods in the south.
Search teams were focused on the Neot Hakikar area and were using drones, helicopters and rescue boats.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.