School Field Trips: Should We Worry?

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School bus sign

The gear-up for back-to-school has begun in earnest, with stores stocking shelf upon shelf of shiny, new crayons, and the emails are already flooding my mailbox to let me know about uniform code, student activity sign-ups, and committee members needed. As much as my kids claim they don't ever want summer to end, I can tell they're excited. We weren't thinking about field trips -- not yet, anyway -- when I read this recent article in the New York Times about a sixth grader who drowned during a school field trip.

Nicole Suriel's death was a tragedy," the report concluded. "Certainly Columbia Secondary School personnel did not intend to cause her harm. Nevertheless, there was a lack of adequate planning by the principal and the assistant principal, a failure to provide a sufficient number of adults to supervise the children at the beach and poor judgment by the teacher in charge who either failed to realize that there were no lifeguards on duty or failed to recognize the additional danger presented by their absence.

This is where I would love to assure you that I, as a parent, would never receive a phone call like the one Nicole Suriel's parents did. This was a child who couldn't swim, who went on a field trip to the beach. I would love to believe her parents should have kept her home, or that they should have otherwise known this would be an unsafe situation. But the fact of the matter is that this tragedy was the result of a series of poor choices on the part of the school administration. There were no permission slips; there were not enough supervising adults; this was a beach with no lifeguards and, indeed, posted as "no swimming." And so I would love to blame the school, but then I'm left with the reality that this could happen to anyone, anywhere, whenever we put our children into the hands of others, even trusted others.

And that makes this horrible story hit a little too close to home, for me.

I have never said "no" to one of my kids going on a field trip. The permission slip comes home, I read it over, and I sign it. The one and only event I've declined (much to my daughter's consternation) is probably the safest possible scenario: the middle school band does a lock-in once a year where they stay up all night. The chances of my child being harmed while locked in the gym with the other bandies is low, but the chances of me harming her after she returns and has been up all night eating sugary snacks is high, so I said no. But it certainly wasn't a matter of concern over what might happen to her during the event.

Back when the kids were smaller, I volunteered to chaperone on several occasions. I was less busy, then, and they were still happy to have me along. More recently, the last couple of times I volunteered, I was not-so-secretly relieved when I was told they had enough parents already.

Both of my children have gone on buses and in other parents' cars to museums and plays and nature centers. My daughter even did a class trip where they spent a couple of days in the woods, paddling around in canoes. I've never really given it much thought, in terms of any potential danger. We've talked about "stranger danger," and we've talked about listening to your gut and being aware that even adults you love and respect can make bad choices, but in terms of basic safety, I guess I assume the school is making sure that no one is driving drunk or taking the kids to where they might get sucked out to sea by a riptide.

And suddenly I'm feeling a little naive.

On the other hand, my kids have made it to 7th and 5th grade without any field-trip-related trauma, so maybe I'm just being realistic? Maybe this is sort of like automobile accident statistics, in that car crashes are the leading cause of accidental death for children in the U.S., but most of those kids ride in cars regularly and most of them are never in an accident?

How do you handle field trips? Do you ever say no? Do you make sure to chaperone each and every one? Do you worry?

BlogHer Contributing Editor Mir grew up in upstate New York, and has fond memories of the yearly field trip to the Corning Museum of Glass. She blogs near-daily about issues parental and otherwise at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, and posts all day long about the joys of mindful retail therapy at Want Not.

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