Board seeks comments on overseas school trips

Balto. Co. residents asked for opinions before vote

safety is main concern

October 25, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County school board, wrestling with whether to cancel foreign field trips because of safety concerns brought on by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent world events, will spend the next two weeks hearing from concerned parents, students and teachers before taking a vote.

This is what the board has heard from George Chiles, father of an eighth-grader at Parkville Middle School, which might cancel a planned trip to Spain in March: "This experience can in no way be duplicated in the classroom. This is a bad message that you're sending our children that we need to live in fear."

This is what they've heard from Meg O'Hare, an activist from the northeastern part of the county: "I never got to travel when I was in high school, and I'm not too warped. They're only 17. If they don't get to go to Europe ... this year, there's always another 50, 60, 70 years."

Board members, scheduled to vote late Tuesday on Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's recommendation that school-sponsored trips to destinations such as Spain, France and Italy be canceled for the school year, chose to wait until their meeting Nov. 6 to decide -- giving them time not only to hear from constituents, but also to reconcile their views about whether to permit trips to far-flung locations.

Hairston's staff said the proposed ban on foreign trips reflects a concern about safety: Increased international anti-American sentiment has brought worries that if a class is overseas and another domestic attack occurs, students could be stranded.

The board approved a tightening of procedures for local and out-of-state trips, adding an extra review of overnight trips in the days before they are taken to make sure destinations are secure. Dozens of those trips are scheduled, including band performances at a Pennsylvania music festival, a halftime show at a Buffalo Bills football game and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York.

In a lengthy, thoughtful discussion, several board members said they felt uncomfortable issuing a blanket statement banning travel abroad. They also wondered how to keep students from losing money paid for trips that could be canceled and whether the school system should buy travel insurance.

"As a parent, I have the responsibility to decide if a trip is safe," said board member John A. Hayden III. "I frankly don't give a hoot if the French teacher says the trip is safe."

Hayden called travel abroad an "invaluable" learning experience he would not want to curtail.

Said board member James E. Walker: "I definitely wouldn't let my grandchild go on any flight. I'm not concerned about trip cancellation insurance. It's life insurance. I don't think anyone who went down at the Pentagon was thinking about travel insurance."

Walker said he doesn't want to put school principals in the position of making what could be life-or-death decisions and would rather set a system policy.

Board Vice President James A. Sasiadek said he wants to hear what the public has to say.

"I don't wish to overreact," he said, "but I do wish to listen to community input. I would rather react on the side of caution until we know what the future holds for us because this is a temporary measure."

School system staff members cautioned that the decision needs to be made quickly so schools and teachers know what to do about the dozen or so planned international trips.

"As we wait for your decision, refund deadlines come and go," said Danae Farley of the English as a second language department.

School board President Donald L. Arnold said the hand-wringing could be for naught if the international situation worsens.

"If things escalate," he said, "all bets are off."

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