Anywhere kids are outside of the district overnight, especially out of state, that should come before the [school] board for approval.”
- District 861 Superintendent Scott Hannon
Thirty-nine Winona Senior High School students left Winona last week, headed for Washington, D.C., to participate in a November 17 rally in which participants demanded that international leaders address violence perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in central Africa. The trip was led by Winona Senior High School teacher Dwayne Voegeli, and students are expected to return by bus today.
The trip, which spanned several days and took students more than 1,000 miles from home, was never approved by the school board. A set of field trip policies and procedures, which are currently under revision by a district committee, contain conflicting information about how such trips should be planned and approved. (See story page 5a.) The high school principal, Kelly Halvorsen, and superintendent Scott Hannon both gave approval for the travel, but Hannon said this kind of trip should have been presented to the school board.
“Anywhere kids are outside of the district overnight, especially out of state, that should come before the board for approval,” said Hannon.
Hannon said the reason the board was not presented with the trip request was because there wasn’t enough time between when the student travel was proposed and when the group needed to arrange for a bus and head east. Additionally, Hannon said high school principal Kelly Halvorsen informed him this trip was of the sort that didn’t require board evaluation or support. (See story on policies page 5a.)
Halvorsen said the trip had a base cost of about $260 per student, and a few grants were used to defray the cost. Chaperones paid for the trip, too, she said, and that money was used for student scholarships for those who had
difficulty paying for the event. The trip was part of the “service learning course and student activity group,” and also used student activity account funds, which Halvorsen said contain funds raised by students for activities and events.
Hannon said about a “half dozen” chaperones attended, including one community member. Students and chaperones spent Friday meeting with congressional leaders and congressional staff members, urging them to provide resources to combat the LRA in Africa. On Saturday, the group was expected to attend a rally for the same cause, joining more than 12,000 people from across North America on a march around the White House.
Hannon said the event was a rally, not some sort of radical protest in which students would "chain themselves to fences." “We made it clear that any activity like that is unacceptable,” he said. “We looked at the whole thing,” he added, stating he’d viewed a video of a similar rally organized by the same group—Invisible Children—and it appeared “clean” and “above the board.”
Hannon admitted it was problematic for the trip to proceed without board approval, but said revising the student travel policy will help clear up any confusion about the process. “Hindsight is always 20-20,” he said of the lack of school board oversight. “Hopefully, [the students] are all safe, the trip was all planned and very educational.”
It is imperative that the district find a field trip policy that makes sense and works, said Hannon. This will be the third time in the last four years that the district has reworked the policies, following several controversial student trips and instances in which school travel did not comply with district rules.
Field trip history
A 2007 choir trip to Poland prompted an overhaul of field trip policies after problems resulted in concern from parents, community members, and the school board.
Former choir director Peter Schleif took a group of 43 students to that country without raising all the funds necessary to pay the expenses, embarking on the foreign adventure with more than $25,000 in unpaid bills. The unpaid travel agency sent the district to a collection agency, and when district officials attempted to examine accounting documentation for the trip, it found more of a mystery than a true account of expenses and collections.
A later investigation found that a female student had been sexually harassed by a member of her host family, and was expected to sleep in the same bedroom as the 20-year-old man, who reportedly propositioned her throughout the night. Additionally, students were allowed to attend a nightclub without chaperones; the legal drinking age in Poland is 16. The female student who had been sexually harassed during the trip found herself locked out of her host family home after that outing, and was forced to walk around the city at 11 p.m. in an attempt to locate another host family that would take her in.
A district committee worked to rewrite the field trip policy in the wake of that controversy, drafting a 20-page set of rules and procedures to replace the former two-page policy. The old policy under which the trip to Poland was approved gave teachers wide latitude in trip planning and implementation, and provided for little oversight by the school board. The policy adopted after the trip created a Field Trip Oversight Committee and provided a more clear procedure for how student travel must be planned and approved, and how funds must be raised.
By 2010, school board members began expressing frustration that the new policy was not being followed. In particular, district personnel were not adhering to time frames for planning and board approval. The board asked in November 2010 that the policy be revised again.
The time frame for board approval for overnight trips was adjusted in December of that year. By May, 2011, school board members complained about the foreign travel portion of the policies. They said that another revision might be necessary after trips to Italy and Greece, Costa Rica, and Scotland and Ireland were planned, but again did not follow the new policy’s procedures for time frames or administrator and oversight committee approval.
In July 2012, the board asked a committee to examine the set of policies yet again, requesting that forms that provide information on how student travel relates to curriculum be retooled. That committee is still in the process of rewriting the policies.