Districts Starting to Loosen Student Travel Bans
Students from Community High School District 155 in Crystal Lake, Ill., often took field trips to Chicago, just 50 miles to the south. But district officials, fearing an increased risk to student safety, called a halt to all trips after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"It was a tenuous time," said Mike Mills, the superintendent of the 6,000- student district. Tall buildings in Chicago, like the Sears Tower and the Chicago Trade Center, district officials reasoned, could become the next targets after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were struck.
Today, Crystal Lake students again regularly trek to the Windy City. As airport security has increased and the nation has regained a sense of normalcy—even the White House will be reopened to visitors this month—many districts are reconsidering Sept. 11-inspired travel bans.
For example, the Bristol, Conn., school board decided in early January to allow students and teachers from the 8,000-student district to travel domestically. After some debate, the board also approved school-sanctioned trips abroad.
In Illinois, Mr. Mills said that the ban on student travel in his district had prompted him to revamp the policy on school-sanctioned trips in general. School officials decided that the annual trip some teachers and students take to Disney World would no longer be a school-sponsored activity; the district did not want to be responsible for each student's safety during the trip.
School groups would still be allowed to take such noneducational trips, but the district would no longer be directly involved, Mr. Mills said.
In late November, Mr. Mills decided to lift the ban on the field trips to Chicago, partly because President Bush was telling people to participate in their usual activities, but with a heightened state of awareness.
That message inspired many people to keep their travel plans, even though it contradicted many districts' decisions to curtail travel, said Michael Palmer, the executive director of the Student Youth Travel Association of North America, located in Lake Orion, Mich. The president, he said, "would have a better handle on national security than a local school district."
A Spencer, Mass.-based student travel company, known as Passports, experienced a wave of cancellations after the attacks in New York City and just outside Washington, said Michael Forhan, the director of corporate development for the company, which organizes overseas trips.
But now that some districts are lifting the bans and travelers are feeling safer, bookings have started to increase. Spring break and the Easter holiday are popular times for travel, Mr. Forhan said. And some teachers are already planning trips abroad for the 2003-04 school year, he said.
"The market is starting to come back in a big way," he said. By next year, he estimates, the company will have recovered about 80 percent of the business it had before the attacks.
Student-travel companies report that trips abroad have decreased significantly, but that trips to the American heartland have increased. Students have started visiting such places as Branson, Mo., St. Louis, and Nashville, Tenn., Mr. Palmer said, instead of East Coast locales that traditionally have been more popular.
The recent cancellations and fear of travel won't be a long-term trend, Mr. Palmer predicted, adding that the student-travel market has grown about 20 percent a year for each of the past 10 years.
But even as students and adults have started getting back on planes and buses, some districts are sticking by their original decisions and continuing to prohibit student travel.
For instance, school officials in East Lansing, Mich., have retained an international travel ban even though high school students there recently staged a sit-in to protest the restrictions. The school's orchestra had to cancel a March trip to perform at Walt Disney World in Orlando.
However, Thomas R. Giblin, the superintendent of the 3,700-student district, said that domestic trips will be considered on a case-by-case basis. A trip to a nearby amusement park has already been approved for the high school physics class later this spring.
In Cherokee County, Ga., parents of students in two schools—Etowah High School and Sixes Elementary School—lost $150,000 from deposits for field trips that had to be canceled when the superintendent called off all field trips to Washington, military installations, and overseas.
In response, Frank Petruzielo, the superintendent of the 27,000-student district in suburban Atlanta, used unanticipated revenues from property taxes to give the two schools a total of $100,000 for their supplementary budgets. The schools plan to use that money to take their students on field trips, said district spokesman Michael McGowan.
Policies on student travel—and the reactions from students and parents—vary greatly nationwide, according to Donna Clark, the associate director of the National Student Councils Association, based in Alexandria, Va.
Some districts are cutting travel because of budget concerns, she said. But some student councils have been able to obtain travel-ban waivers by presenting their side to the local school board, Ms. Clark said. "In some cases, it is working," she said.
And in general, Ms. Clark said, she has seen that school boards and superintendents are starting to lift the bans. "It is becoming a little more relaxed," she said.
Vol. 21, Issue 21, Page 9