Even before several high-profile problems on field trips, local districts had been grappling with how to strike a balance between providing educational opportunities and ensuring student safety.
In a court hearing last week, the lawyer for Carol Burton, a former Seattle choir teacher fired for violating rules for overnight field trips, asked Seattle Superintendent Larry Nyland how he would do room checks if he were a chaperone.
Nyland testified he would get an extra key to all the rooms, then check to make sure all the students were in their beds by using the flashlight on his cellphone.
But the lawyer, Kevin Peck, pointed out in his closing arguments that district policy prohibits chaperones from being alone with students — and Nyland’s testimony showed that district policy is unclear.
As Burton fights to get her job back, her case raises many questions about field trips and chaperoning, especially in light of several recent cases in which students were allegedly groped and sexually assaulted by other students on trips.
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Over the past few decades, Seattle-area school districts have made a number of changes to their field-trip policies to try to ensure student safety while also offering the educational benefits of those trips.
Districts have added requirements that schools provide detailed itineraries to parents, as well as train all chaperones before trips, and set specific rules about bed checks.
But should chaperones have to stay up all night to ensure students stay in their rooms? What method should they use to do bed checks? And if something goes wrong, who is responsible?
The risks are great enough that some schools have banned all overnight trips — including Garfield High, Burton’s former school, although the principal let them resume after a few months.
“This is an issue that many schools are grappling with around the country,” said education-law expert Edward Dragan.
The field trip that led to Burton’s dismissal was in March 2015, when she took 39 students to New Orleans to participate in a jazz festival. Eight chaperones accompanied the students.
The district had recently reached a $700,000 settlement with the parents of a Garfield student who said she was raped by a classmate during a three-day trip to Olympic National Park in 2012. Two months after that settlement, the district launched another investigation into reports that male and female students had shared sleeping areas while camping on another Garfield High trip.
Burton admits she broke the rules on the New Orleans trip — that she and some of the chaperones drank cocktails and glasses of wine when they met in the evenings to discuss the events of the day and to plan for the next. She also admits she allowed female and male students in each other’s hotel rooms before curfew. Both violated the district field-trip rules.
Those violations might not have come to light if two students, in the airport on the way home, hadn’t reported to other students, and eventually Burton, that one of their male classmates groped them multiple times during the trip, including on a bus and in their hotel room.
That triggered the investigation that led to Burton’s dismissal — and the revelation that the male student had been expelled from a private school for a similar field-trip incident — something staff in the district’s downtown office knew, but never told anyone at Garfield.
Burton’s supporters argue that the mistakes shouldn’t have cost Burton her job and that she is being used as a scapegoat for the district’s own lapses. The judge is expected to issue a decision about Burton’s job in the next two weeks.
During last week’s hearing, Burton’s attorney pointed to other cases in which Seattle teachers broke field-trip rules and received reprimands but weren’t fired.
One was a high-school teacher who took students on a camping trip and, saying he had permission from their parents, left before they did. In court, Peck said that teacher received a seven-day suspension.
And there had been problems on prior Garfield choir trips: A few students were caught smoking marijuana on a trip to Reno, Nev., and were suspended. On a trip to New York City, another student was suspended after a police officer arrested him for buying marijuana in Central Park. And during another trip to New York City in 2014, a student was arrested for tagging a building with graffiti. Each time, Burton reported the incidents to Garfield officials.
No teachers or chaperones were reprimanded after those incidents.
Hard to quantify
Big problems on field trips appear to be uncommon, but they’re hard to quantify because many incidents are settled quietly by teachers and schools.
But it is clear that they aren’t limited to Garfield High — or Seattle high schools.
In 1991, two students on the cross-country team at Everett’s Cascade High died when they were separated from their classmates on a hike on Mount Dickerman. The bodies of Erin Montgomery, 16, and Christian Isaacson, 17, were found days later at the bottom of a steep ravine.
On a field trip to a farm in 2001, a 9-year-old Spokane boy who was allergic to peanuts died a few hours after he bit into a peanut-butter cookie in his school-provided lunch. While other students toured the farm, he spent more than an hour on a bus before receiving treatment to counteract the anaphylactic shock.
In 2011, a chaperone on a field trip at Seattle’s Lowell Elementary was arrested after another parent recognized him as a wanted felon who had been featured on the show “America’s Most Wanted.”
And in October, four seniors at Mount Rainier High in Des Moines, on a trip to a business-club conference in Seattle, invited two sophomore girls to their hotel room at the Seattle Sheraton and gave them shots of vodka and whiskey. Both girls woke up to find the four males kissing and touching them. All four males were charged in February with the alleged rape of one of the girls, and with supplying liquor to a minor.
The chaperone guidelines for Highline Public Schools state that females and males aren’t allowed in each other’s rooms at any time. Chaperones also are told to do random room checks throughout the night, with male chaperones checking on male students and female chaperones checking on female students.
The district wouldn’t comment on whether any teachers or chaperones are under investigation, but district spokeswoman Catherine Carbone Rogers said she could confirm that bed checks were made.
Not every district in the Seattle area provides specifics on how chaperones should monitor students overnight. In some cases, the schools decide, and in others, the decision is left to the teachers.
Who is responsible?
Parents and students sign permission slips and code-of-conduct agreements before field trips, but if something goes wrong, educators can still be held responsible.
Without clear guidelines, some teachers and parents say, districts and individual teachers open themselves up to liability.
If a school has good policies and procedures, but students “engaged in behavior that a reasonable teacher or chaperone would not observe or have reason to know was occurring,” then there may be no liability on the part of a school, said Dragan, the education-law expert. But if there is an incident and someone can prove there was a lack of planning, little or no chaperone training or no clear student code of conduct, then the school may be liable, he added.
The risks have led some districts to ban overnight trips, but experts say that’s not necessarily the best decision.
“Field trips have a function,” said Perry Zirkel, an education-law professor at Lehigh University. “The kids should get to see New Orleans. So we end up in the middle.”
Some parents feel that if there are too many rules, they may become unenforceable.
Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, said teachers won’t want to escort students on field trips if “they are going to be blamed for everything a student might do.”
That applies to volunteer chaperones, too, said Kirk Wohlers, former president of Garfield’s PTSA.
“I don’t think a chaperone can possibly be responsible for the actions of all kids at all times,” he said. “It’s important to have education and awareness, but it’s not feasible to have a parent watching the kids at all times. It simply isn’t. People need to sleep.”
In recent years, districts have revised their policies after problems have arisen.
After the Cascade High students’ death, for example, the Everett School District started requiring that parents sign permission slips acknowledging they had read and received a detailed itinerary, and that principals review policy with staff. Before the addition, the district’s policies and procedures for field trips were three pages long. Now, they total nearly 30.
In Seattle, the field-trip policies were updated after the 2012 trip to Olympic National Park, and now all chaperones are supposed to be trained, supervise students at all times, and do bed checks in the middle of the night. Seattle’s field-trip procedures form, which includes behavior agreements, guidelines and checklists, now runs more than 60 pages.
Some districts in other states have decided to ban overnight field trips altogether, Zirkel said.
Wohlers said he wouldn’t like to see that happen here.
With all that’s happened at Garfield, chaperones are being extra vigilant.
On a recent overnight trip with the school’s vocal jazz ensemble, parent Army Barnett said she and other chaperones “made sure that we followed every single rule that we could find.”
They put tape on each door at curfew, after making sure students were in their rooms. If the tape broke, they would know someone had left. They even took photos of the tape at night and compared it to the seal the next morning.
“It’s not impossible, but it was work,” said Barnett, president of Friends of Garfield Singers who called Burton an “exceptional teacher,” and supports her fight to get her job back.
But tape isn’t always an option. Barnett said she’s chaperoned camping trips and “You have to poke your head in the tent and make sure they are still in their sleeping bags.
“It’s like an invasion of privacy. It seems like a good idea, but the finer points of how it can be executed are sometimes a little murky.”