ENSURING A SAFE AND POSITIVE OVERNIGHT SCHOOL FIELD TRIP
A Queens College Expert Discusses Ten Questions
Every Parent Should Ask
NEW YORK, December 11, 2003 -- Mounting concern over the safety of overnight student trips, triggered in part by widespread news coverage of the Mepham High School abuse incident, has prompted one Queens College expert to devise a helpful guide for parents considering such outings for their children.
Peter Schmidt, Director of the Queens College Environmental Center for Teaching and Research at Caumsett, a Long Island facility that has hosted hundreds of overnight student and scouting retreats over the past 24 years, has developed a “top 10” list of questions every parent should ask before consenting to overnight field trips. The questions raise issues regarding supervision, chaperoning, scheduling, sleeping arrangements, and facility layout, to name a few.
In creating the list, Schmidt noted that parents and educational institutions should not shy away from overnight retreats altogether, but rather insure that appropriate precautions are taken first by the school and/or host facility. Outings of this nature, he maintains, can provide singular learning opportunities that enhance a child’s education, build self-esteem, and foster classroom camaraderie.
“These are powerful reasons why schools do and should sponsor overnight trips,” said Schmidt. “That said, there is much to be concerned about in terms of supervision. Because of recent events, people are nervous. But hundreds of thousands of children have participated in overnight retreats over the years involving sports camps, peer mentoring, environmental education and history lessons – without incident.”
Before parents consent to overnight field trips for their children, Schmidt advises them to receive satisfactory answers to the following 10 questions:
1. Where are students going?
Parents should know the name and location of the facility and be furnished with contact information for emergency purposes.
2. Why are students going?
Is the outing part of the regular curriculum or will it supplement components of the state-mandated curriculum? The answer to this question need not be yes. “Sometimes overnight trips are more valuable for the experience than for any particular piece of knowledge the students will receive,” Schmidt pointed out.
3. Who is going?
Not every child is mature enough to handle an overnight trip, he explained, and at times it is better to leave some children behind. Parents should know if it is school policy to send everyone.
4. What is the schedule?
Parents should have access to the schedule prior to the event and the agenda should be “packed” with activities. The Caumsett Center, for example, always provides a very detailed program. “This is critically important,” Schmidt said. He emphasized that specified “free time” should be closely supervised and tightly defined.
5. Who are the chaperones?
Teachers and school officials make ideal chaperones, according to Schmidt, but if parents are involved, they should receive ample instruction prior to the trip. It is also preferable that a parent not be assigned to his or her own child’s group. “This avoids the issue of them spending too much time watching their own kids. A child also behaves very differently under the watch of a parent, which would diminish his or her social experience.”
6. How many chaperones will there be, and what are their responsibilities?
The number of chaperones should be determined largely by the age of the children. For instance, a second-grade group going to New York City may require one adult for every three children, but the same number of chaperones for an older group bound for a more remote facility is probably unnecessary.
“These questions should be asked before the trip, not after something happens,” Schmidt cautioned. “And more is not always better – too many chaperones become a distraction to the program and one another, especially if they let their guard down because they believe someone else is watching the children.” Furthermore, chaperoning responsibilities should be clearly defined, especially in the event that unscheduled time is permitted. For longer trips, he recommended a rotating schedule to allow for chaperone breaks.
7. What are the sleeping arrangements?
“There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question,” said Schmidt, noting that several scenarios work. “Sometimes, facilities have separate barracks for boys and girls, and other times, there are individual rooms. What is critical is the proximity of the chaperones.” Closer is better, and if the chaperone is not in the immediate vicinity, parents must ask about the frequency of bed checks.
8. What is the layout of the facility?
Parents should also have advance knowledge of the facility’s general layout, and ask whether there are multiple buildings, the distance between buildings, and how students travel between buildings (i.e., do students move in supervised groups or individually?).
9. Is your child’s group sharing the facility with others?
Will your group be sharing the premises with another group? If so, are the two groups compatible? “You wouldn’t want young children sharing a facility with an older drug intervention group,” Schmidt advised.
10. Is there on-site staff?
Finally, what roles do the on-site staff play? “This is particularly important in an emergency because the on-site staff will have inside knowledge of medical facilities and emergency services,” he said.
The Queens College Environmental Center for Teaching and Research at Caumsett has served more than 200,000 area students, 90,000 of whom have stayed overnight, since opening in 1979. Situated on 1,600 acres in Huntington, Long Island, the facility offers a broad educational and research program for grade school, high school and college students, and plays host to a variety of overnight excursions for schools and summer camps throughout the year. According to Schmidt, most of these organizations return repeatedly.
“Once the schools participate, they keep coming because they find the overnight experience helps bring the class together,” Schmidt said, citing the merit of changed attitudes and improved student interaction. “The experience magnifies what the students learn in school, giving them a base to draw upon throughout the year. You can talk about life in the forest, for example, but unless the student has been to the forest, it’s all theory.”
“The incident at Mepham High School has put a tremendous chill on schools running overnight trips, says Schmidt. “But properly run trips are very valuable educational experiences that students should not miss.”
For more information about the Queens College Environmental Center for Teaching and Research and the programs it offers, call (631) 421-3526.