Amid school trip bans, some are going it alone

Travel: Unfazed by terrorism worries, some metro-area parents are letting students go on unofficial versions of canceled trips abroad.

April 17, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

When South River High School student Brian Misiewicz and his schoolmates boarded a plane bound for London last night, it wasn't with the blessing of Anne Arundel County school officials.

But it was all right with their parents and the U.S. State Department.

The dozen or so teen-agers are among hundreds of Maryland students who are going ahead with plans to visit foreign countries this spring, though local school officials have canceled field trips because of safety concerns.

"I hope to get a better understanding of culture," said Brian, a 10th-grader who had never left American soil before. "Especially at a time like this, when everyone is kind of unsure about everyone else's culture."

Amid war and terrorism anxieties, many school systems have banned trips to places as close to home as Washington and as far as Mexico and Europe. But some students and parents disagree with the decisions, noting that students have spent months saving up and looking forward to the trips. Many feel officials are being too cautious.

"I think Scotland is safer than where I am here, [working] outside of Washington, D.C., living around Annapolis," said Pete Misiewicz, Brian's father, who is part of the group of 24 students and parents from the Edgewater school who traveled to the United Kingdom. "The State Department said it was still a safe place to visit," he added.

Some school officials, however, are worried about students going on group trips without official sanction.

"The thing that makes me nervous is we have very strict standards about travel in the county," said Bob Nykyforchyn, chairman of the foreign travel study committee for Howard County schools, which have canceled all overseas trips.

"Now we have kids going without any kind of rules and it wouldn't surprise me in the least to see a bunch of kids getting drunk and rowdy," Nykyforchyn said.

For some students, though, going on the trips means seizing an opportunity to learn and refusing to shy away from a world that has become increasingly complicated in recent years.

For others, it's a matter of finances. The money - some of it raised through part-time jobs and fund raising - has been paid, and some travel agencies will not give full refunds unless there are specific State Department warnings that name the countries on the itinerary. The State Department has warned Americans to be vigilant worldwide, but has issued specific warnings only against travel to the Middle East, parts of Asia (because of the SARS outbreak) and a few politically unstable Eastern European, African and South American countries.

Some students have enlisted their parents to accompany them and are traveling without their school's knowledge. Others are letting officials know, and signing off their rights to sue schools if something goes awry.

In Baltimore County, which has banned school groups from travel abroad and many out-of-state trips, some parents took steps to turn official trips into private excursions.

Last week, 80 band students from Ridgely Middle School and 40 chaperones left for a 10-day trip to England, Wales and Iceland. Beforehand they signed papers relieving the school system of liability and signed over responsibility for emergency medical care to chaperones. Instead of meeting at the school before heading for Baltimore-Washington International Airport, they gathered in a department store parking lot.

All of this was done, said Jan Brinch, whose son David is on the trip, "to make sure the legal issues were clear and anybody having to do with the faculty and the school would be absolved of any liability."

Parents in Baltimore City schools haven't had to go to such lengths because field trips, including one to Italy, are going on as planned. "We're staying on top of the situation day by day," said school system spokeswoman Edie House, "but we have not canceled any trips."

In Carroll County, public schools do not sponsor international field trips, so it's hard to assess how many may have been affected by security issues. Rather, teachers and private companies independently organize and lead trips abroad for students. Teacher-led trips to Spain and Germany later this year are in the works.

Several trips canceled by Howard County school officials are going on this month as originally planned.

Veronica Bohn, principal at Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City, said a teacher at the school is in Italy with his students this week, despite the travel ban. Teachers who make such decisions, officials said, are considered to be traveling as private individuals.

An English teacher from Wilde Lake High in Columbia left last week with a small group of students to tour castles in England. Robin Procida said it meant too much for her daughter Alysa to cancel her spring break plans. The 17-year-old and three other students conferred and decided to go despite the school system's ban.

As for concerns about behavior on unofficial trips getting out of hand, parents and teachers say children will be as well-supervised as if they would be on school-sanctioned trips.

"There's enough chaperones to keep the kids in check," said Lana Schultz, whose son, a ninth-grader at South River High, also went on the U.K. trip. "The kids have already been told that if they didn't follow directions they could be sent home."

After sightseeing in London, the group from South River plans to travel to Edinburgh to walk in the city's Easter Day parade - the event that the school's 110 band members had planned to march in.

"We're not going to march in the parade as a band," said Pete Misiewicz. "But as far as the other educational excursions ... we're still following the trip's original itinerary."

Sun staff writers Tricia Bishop, Liz F. Kay, Jennifer McMenamin, Jonathan D. Rockoff and Tanika White contributed to this article.

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