Security Alerts Disrupt Student Travel
Whether he knows it or not, whenever Tom Ridge announces a national code- orange "high" alert for possible terrorist attacks, he is determining whether thousands of schoolchildren are permitted by their administrators to take field trips.
That's exactly what happened this week, when many school districts banned various school-sponsored trips after the secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security put the nation on orange alert the evening that President Bush gave President Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq or face war. The orange alert is the second highest of five color-coded levels, ranging from green for "low" risk of terrorist attacks to red for "severe."
Monday's orange alert, which continued at press time as U.S. military forces were attacking Iraq, was the third "high" alert since the system was established after the terrorist assaults of Sept. 11, 2001. The first orange alert was declared last September for the anniversary of those attacks; the second lasted for 20 days in February, when federal authorities felt heightened concern about further terrorism. ("As Alert Issued, Schools Urged to Review Security," Feb. 19, 2003.)
After rolling out and then lifting field-trip bans over the past year and a half as if they were Venetian blinds, many districts have revised student-travel policies to simply correspond with the color codes used by the federal government. Exactly which color code prompts a student travel ban and what travel is restricted under such bans, however, vary between districts.
This week, the school board of the 31,000-student Gaston County district in Gastonia, N.C., voted unanimously to link its student-travel policy to the orange and red alerts. The board has empowered the Gaston County superintendent to cancel all out-of-state and international trips whenever the Homeland Security Department declares either of those two alerts.
So, on March 18, the day after Secretary Ridge issued the third orange alert, Gaston County Superintendent Edward D. Sadler canceled all field trips through the end of this month, including one that was planned this week to Walt Disney World, in Orlando, Fla.
"We already all know what happened in New York and Washington," said Mr. Sadler, referring to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "I consider Disney World to be a major tourist center. I would think it's very possible there could be terrorist acts that could occur there.
"It's better to be safe than sorry."
Other districts that have similarly decided to restrict student travel when the Homeland Security Department puts the nation on an orange alert include the Guilford County schools in Greensboro, N.C., and the Anne Arundel County district in Annapolis, Md.
For some districts, though, an orange alert is not enough to put the brakes on school travel.
Pennsylvania's 48,000-student Baldwin-Whitehall school district in the Pittsburgh suburbs, and the 109,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North Carolina will restrict student travel only if federal officials announce a red alert.
So this week, despite the orange alert, those districts weren't restricting school-sponsored trips.
Baldwin-Whitehall's superintendent, Charles H. Faust, said that following February's orange alert, his school board originally decided to forbid all field trips outside the Pittsburgh area. But the board got a lot of flak from cheerleaders who had planned to compete this month in Tampa, Fla., and didn't want to lose the money they'd invested in the trip.
On March 5, the Baldwin-Whitehall board voted 6-3 to lift the travel ban it had put in place last month and to link any further student-travel bans to red alerts only.
Ironically, said Mr. Faust, many student groups, including the cheerleading group that had argued for lifting the ban, have canceled their trips anyway. Most have received nearly full refunds of what they paid for trips.
Elsewhere, districts began restricting student travel as the nation prepared for war, but without linking policies directly to the Homeland Security Department's color codes.
The school board of the 13,000-student Palatine Township High School District 211 in Illinois, for example, last month rescinded its approval on all of the 11 student foreign-exchange trips that had been scheduled for this school year. The decision was made to protect the safety of students and staff, as well as to ensure that groups could get full refunds on their trips, a spokesman for the district said.
In districts that have linked out-of-state travel bans to the orange alert, such as Guilford County, student groups still can hold off on canceling international trips that may be scheduled for late spring and early summer.
The new district travel policies around the country differ on what kinds of travel are considered to put students most at risk. A city or region that is viewed as safe for student travel by some administrators may be considered a magnet for possible terrorist acts by others.
For instance, immediately after the Homeland Security Department placed the nation on orange alert this week, the 166,000-student Fairfax County, Va., district in suburban Washington banned student field trips to New York City, as well as trips just down the road to the nation's capital. After the war began, the district called for schools to cancel all international trips by students scheduled for this school year.
But the 138,900-student Montgomery County system in Rockville, Maryland, which is also located in a suburb of Washington, permitted day trips to Washington, D.C., even after the war started, though it banned overnight field trips or international student travel.
Meanwhile, the District of Columbia public school system, which has 67,000 students, didn't restrict student travel at all last week.
With the increased possibility that student field trips may be canceled, some districts are altering travel policies to require that student groups purchase adequate travel insurance or only sign contracts that guarantee they will get their money back if they need to cancel because of safety concerns.
Many companies arranging student trips offer travel insurance through an additional provider, but wartime provisions typically apply only when a particular destination is directly under siege, a spokesman for one such company said.
Bryan N. Cole, the owner of Super Holiday Tours, based in Orlando, Fla., said his company, which doesn't offer travel insurance, isn't giving full refunds for the few student groups that have backed out on trips within 60 days of the scheduled travel. Nor does he believe most companies in the student-travel industry are doing so.
"We're operating on the same premise that the fear of going to a particular destination doesn't warrant a complete refund," Mr. Cole said.