Published in the National Business Officers Association's Net Assets (May/June 2019)
A story about a school trip to Washington, D.C., dominated the news cycle in January, especially the coverage of a student who appeared to engage in a staring contest with a Native American drummer outside of the Lincoln Memorial. I will leave it to others to weigh in on whether the trip chaperones should have intervened, but this story reminds us of the important role chaperones can and should play in managing student conduct and ensuring student safety during off-campus activities.
IT'S A JOB, NOT A VACATION
It may be rewarding and refreshing to experience other locations through the eyes of young visitors, but chaperoning students is also a job. A chaperone should not mistake a school trip to Rome for an opportunity to bring a spouse along to visit the Colosseum and sample gelato. Whether chaperones are employees or parent volunteers, they must be in their professional role at all times. That also means restricting alcohol consumption, both to remain aware and to model appropriate conduct for students, especially during communal meals. And, if students engage in misconduct, chaperones must be prepared to offer support and seek medical attention or even U.S. embassy assistance. Yes, adults can and should enjoy chaperoning, but in the context of their role as trip leaders, not as sightseeing peers.
WHO SHOULD CHAPERONE?
Most schools use faculty and staff to chaperone. This is ideal, as educators are already trained to manage groups of students. School employees should also be more likely to understand the importance of maintaining appropriate boundaries with students off-campus, especially if they have undergone training about what constitutes healthy adult/student relationships.
Parent chaperones should understand that if their own children are participating in a trip, the parents must be equally available and in charge of all students. In some instances, it may be preferable to find a parent with relevant travel or youth development experience, even if their own child is not a trip participant.
Also think about the type of trip and the relevant expertise that will be valuable. A hike in the woods will require a different skill set than an urban experience. If water activities are involved, do not underestimate the need to have chaperones familiar with the basics of water safety. Unfortunately, drownings are more common than one would imagine.
CRIMINAL BACKGROUND CHECKS AND DRIVING RECORDS
Another benefit of using school employees as chaperones is that they will have already undergone a criminal background check. The same cannot be said of volunteers. State laws differ, so I strongly recommend that you require background checks anyway, and certainly for chaperones on overnight trips.
Be sure to review the driving record of chaperones if the school is not outsourcing transportation to professionals. At a minimum, ensure that chaperones have valid driving licenses and adequate insurance coverage. Be wary of permitting students to drive one another. The Minnesota Supreme Court recently opened the possibility that a school could be liable for the death of a man caused by a 16-year-old student who was driving classmates and an assistant coach to a track meet. The court determined that it was potentially foreseeable that the school should have known that a young and inexperienced driver could be distracted by his cell phone and cause a serious traffic accident. Trip chaperones (coaches) have also been implicated in the lawsuit.
WHAT'S THE RIGHT RATIO?
State laws are largely silent on mandated student/ chaperone ratios for school trips, though trip venues may have their own restrictions (typically 1:8 or 1:10). Student travel organizations typically suggest a tighter ratio (1:7) for international trips. Evaluate the number of chaperones based on a variety of factors, including the venue, student ages, whether overnight travel is involved, or if any students have special needs. The golden rule, if not the golden ratio, is to travel with no less than two chaperones, in case an emergency necessitates one of the chaperones having to depart early.
Happy — and safe — travels
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