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Student travel trickles onward

But some area schools are postponing their trips abroad


By KAREL HOLLOWAY / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Parents were a little anxious when they took their kids to the airport to head out for a grand European tour in February. After all, there was the threat of terrorism and war was looming with Iraq.

But they screwed up their courage and kissed the kids goodbye, and the students from Addison's Trinity Christian Academy had a great time.

"Several students ran across a protest in Bern," said Jill Cox, a teacher who accompanied the students. "They thought it was huge, but who knows. They were a little scared, but nobody really said anything to them."

That's the worst that happened to 30 students on their 12-day trip. Most student groups are reporting similar experiences: very little anti-American feeling and a lot of fun.

But not everyone is getting to go.

Students at Dallas' Bryan Adams High School didn't get the chance to take their trip to Washington, D.C. Dallas school officials denied teacher Marcus Hall's request to take nine students on a trip with the Close-Up Foundation, a program that allows students to meet with legislators and government officials.

Each year, thousands of students head off on school-sponsored trips, some across the state, some across the country and some overseas. Despite worldwide threats, the companies that specialize in booking and leading educational trips say most excursions are going ahead.

There have been some schools that have canceled trips, but most are postponing the trips until later in the year or next year, said Justin Sockett, senior vice president of NETC, the company that handled Trinity Christian's trip.

"I think people are very much taking the attitude, 'If we allow the threat of terrorism to stop us, that's really letting the Mr. Bin Ladens of this world win,' " Mr. Sockett said.

EF Educational Tours, one of the largest educational tour agencies, said their business is down about 25 percent, with most cancellations coming since February.

"We also have thousands and thousands of people who are going and returning with terrific stories," said Kate Berseth, vice president of marketing. "Cancellations haven't been as bad I thought it could be."

The company has canceled trips to Turkey and has changed its refund policy. Instead of losing all of the money if a trip is canceled near the departure date, travelers can use most of the money to travel next year, Ms. Berseth said.

Domestically, student travel appears to be down from pre-2001 levels, but a little higher than last year. The Close Up Foundation said business dropped from 25,000 a year to 14,000 the year after the 9-11 attacks. This year about 20,000 students are expected to go through the program, said Steve Janger, the foundation's president. There were cancellations after the terror alert level was raised to orange, and there were reports of heightened concern in Washington. (The level was reduced to yellow on April 16.)

But most of the students are still going. "Once they've made the decision to come, they come," Mr. Janger said.

The first week of April, out of 1,051 students scheduled, eight didn't go, he said.

In some cases, it's not the parents or teachers who won't approve the trips, but school administrators and boards.

A Dallas district spokeswoman said the district's policy is that domestic trips are being considered on a case-by-case basis and that international travel is forbidden.

Yet, Mr. Hall said, although his Washington trip was denied, the Bryan Adams band and drill team took a trip to the Bahamas earlier this year.

Donnie Claxton, DISD spokesman, said the Bahamas trip was approved before the nation's terror alert was raised to orange, so those students were allowed to travel. The Washington trip, however, was canceled because of the heightened terror alert.

Mr. Hall said he didn't understand why the Close Up trip was denied. He said he has taken students to Washington for 17 years with no problems.

"Ironically, we went last year, just months after 9-11," he said.

Grand Prairie has banned all overnight travel except for University Interscholastic League events. And the administration of the Broken Bow, Okla., school district banned all travel, including a student trip to Florida.

In Grand Prairie, parents and students defied the ban by choosing to attend events at South Padre Island and Houston. In both cases, parents said they weren't concerned about safety but were concerned about losing the money they had put up for the trips.

All of the travel companies said they had improved safety procedures and had changed refund policies in response to school and parent concerns.

Close Up, for instance, no longer allows students time away from the group. Previously, with sponsor and parental permission, a group of students could go off on their own for a short time. Now all students must be with sponsors at all times, Mr. Janger said.

Ms. Cox of Trinity Christian said money and safety were major concerns for the school's parents. The school has sponsored trips for 12 years, and this is the smallest group they have taken. Usually, about 100 students make the trip.

"There was a lot of uncertainty about whether we would travel," said Dianah Branum, who planned the trip but did not go. The students went to Venice, then Bern, Switzerland, on to Paris and Rouen in France, and ended in Belgium.

She said some parents may have skipped this trip because of concerns about safety or the economy and because they knew students would have the opportunity to go next year.

Parents had a lot of safety questions, but the teachers heading the trip made careful plans, she added.

"We had the phone number of every U.S. embassy, and we knew we could get the kids there quickly," Ms. Cox said. The group also took a satellite phone and stayed in touch with Ms. Branum daily.

"The parents are experiencing more concerns but don't want [the students] to miss the benefits," she said. "They weigh the concerns and the benefits and, usually, the benefits win."

Karel Holloway is a free-lance writer in Terrell.