When Field Trips Turn Deadly: Who is Responsible?

When Field Trips Turn Deadly: Who is Responsible?
Recent deaths during field trips have parents and school officials questioning the safety of these excursions. Learn about these tragedies and what parameters should be in place to ensure a safe field trip.
Field trips are an excellent way to enhance the learning experience for students, whether takings a trek through a museum or a hike on a nature trail. Most students relish the change of venue on occasion, and they benefit from hands-on training that makes many school subjects come to life.

Parents are usually happy to send kids along, assuming that adequate supervision will be provided to keep kids safe throughout the trip. However, a number of recent, tragic events have forced some school districts to take a second look at the safety of taking students on the road.

Long Beach Nightmare

A seemingly innocent trip to Long Beach for a middle school class at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering turned tragic when one student drowned in rough waters just off the coastline, according to a report in the New York Times.
Erin Bailey, a first-year English teacher and former lifeguard, and her boyfriend Joseph Garnevicus chaperoned the trip, along with Victoria Wong, a 19-year-old college intern who worked at the school. Assistant Principal Andrew Stillman helped organized the trip and notified parents by email the day before. No permission slips were distributed.
Students reported that no lifeguards were on duty, and signs were posted indicating that swimming was prohibited. Bailey allegedly warned students not to go too far out in the water. Student Nicole Suriel was standing with others in water that reached between her knees and waists when rough waters suddenly carried them out.
When students screamed for help, Bailey and Wong went in after them and pulled five of the students out of the water. Garnevicus was unable to help, since he did not know how to swim. No one was able to reach Suriel, and she drowned in the choppy waters. Long Beach officials found her body more than an hour later, while the rest of the students sat on the beach, crying.
The subsequent investigation resulted in Bailey getting fired and Stillman being relieved of his administrative position. The principal of the school, Dr. Jose Maldonado-Rivera, who approved the trip, was also placed on probation for two years.
Dallas Tragedy
The Dallas Morning News offers another tragic report about an Austin field trip that turned deadly for one high school student two short years ago. James Dante Kings was on a three-day trip with two dozen music students from the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. The students were staying overnight in Austin after playing a concert there, when Kings was found dead on an Austin freeway.
Kings' father, after conducting his own investigation into the trip, believes his son might have been slipped a drug unknowingly. Mr. Kings is waiting for the results of a toxicology report that would confirm his suspicions. Throughout the course of Kings' investigation, he has been concerned about a number of the details that have emerged about the field trip, but Dallas Independent School District will not comment on the case until the official investigation is complete.
California Student Killed in Canada
Another teen student was recently killed after falling 100 feet from a viewing platform at the Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver, Canada. The students were on the field trip to celebrate their graduation and were standing on the platform together when their classmate slipped and fell into the rocky canyon below. The tragic story was reported on the Blackman Legal Group blog, but the boy's name has not been released. The tragic event is being called an accident by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Who is Responsible?
Responsibility for such tragic events varies from situation to situation, and only a detailed investigation can reveal whether the student deaths were the result of unfortunate accidents or neglect on the part of teachers or school districts. Guidelines are typically provided to ensure the safety of students when they are taken off school grounds, as exemplified on the Maryland School Improvement website. Guidelines might include:
  • Approval by the school principal and signed permission slips from parents
  • Consideration of factors that might affect safety of the proposed trip
  • Supervision by experienced field representatives, faculty and parents
  • Establishment of rules for safe student conduct
  • Full survey of site, including conditions that could cause injuries to students
  • Establishment of precautionary measures, particularly around bodies of water, potentially harmful plants or animals, or possibly dangerous chemicals
When proper measures are taken, both in the preparation process and on the actual day of the trip, most incidents can be prevented. Unfortunately, these tragic situations make it painfully clear that even with the best of intentions, school trips are not always the safe havens parents, teachers and students assume them to be.
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