LENOX — On the recommendation of Superintendent Timothy Lee, the School Committee has agreed to deny a request from the current senior class for approval of an overnight celebratory trip this spring.
During their meeting this past week, members heard a report from Lee following an appearance by several senior class officers at the Dec. 7 meeting seeking an exception from a policy amendment adopted by the School Committee in 2013 barring overnight senior class trips.
Lee noted that the seniors had outlined a possible excursion to Boston or to another unspecified location offering outdoor activities such as whitewater rafting, kayaking and hiking.
No specifics had been nailed down, he added, as the students awaited the School Committee's decision on whether to grant a policy waiver that would allow the trip.
The superintendent explained that prior to 2013, some senior class trips had been marked by "incidents of student misconduct, violations of school rules, and some alleged inappropriate conduct involving controlled substances. Concerns for student safety had been the primary impetus for the 2013 policy decision."
Lee recalled some anxiety two years ago about "exposing the school district to excessive liability, and also some concerns expressed about the educational merit of overnight trips that were purely celebratory in nature."
In preparing his recommendation against this year's proposed overnighter, Lee said he reviewed potential itineraries, cost estimates, surveys distributed by class officers to students on their preferences, and he met with senior class advisers and officers.
He also consulted with school administrators and the district's counsel to evaluate legal and liability exposure for sponsoring an overnight venture. Lee also checked the town's insurance policy's coverage limits on liability.
"Based on what I've learned, I would recommend the School Committee not grant an exception to the 2013 policy amendment," Lee said. He urged that any senior excursion remain a day trip only.
"This is not about our current senior class," the superintendent emphasized. "Everyone I've spoken with shared an impression of this class as being one of solid academic standing and good character. ... This is a conscientious, articulate and trustworthy group of young people."
Lee made it clear that any potential threat of misconduct that could jeopardize student safety was not the reason for his recommendation.
"I really think this group is at particularly low risk for the type of misconduct that would threaten safety or that would poorly reflect on the school," he said. "My concerns are primarily about liability and exposure for the school district, and for the chaperones that would be created in a less-structured setting such as this."
Lee pointed out that details of the proposed trip were lacking, and "we know that, depending on where they stay, there would be a need for security. In my estimation, that was not satisfactorily addressed."
He also expressed concern about possible liability impacts on staff chaperones "that a permission slip could not insulate them from."
In addition, Lee added, "as an educator, I have some issue with the public schools being in a role of providing what amounts to a mini-vacation for our seniors. Our mission and objectives as a district are related to educational outcomes, and it's my opinion that celebratory or a class-bonding experiences such as this can be achieved in a day trip."
"An overnight experience, in my opinion, is excessive given the liability issues I've discussed," he stated, adding that he worried about setting a precedent for exemptions to the amended policy adopted two years ago limiting senior class trips to daytime ventures.
Lee voiced concern that if the trip were granted this year, each future senior class would seek similar exceptions to the no-overnights policy.
The School Committee members expressed support for Lee's recommendation.
"This has been a struggle as a school committee member and as a parent," said Vice Chairman Veronica Fenton. "I worry very much about how one or two person's mistakes can come down upon 25, 30 or 40 kids. We've seen it happen."
Referring to years past when she served on the committee with former Chairman Don W. Fitzgerald, Fenton recalled that "we have seen past situations when two students broke the rules, that all the students were punished. I really feel very, very strongly ... that the consequences should be on those who break the rules and not on the rest of the students."
"It's a huge pet peeve of mine," she added. "I sometimes think we fail at that in Lenox," when rules are changed for everyone because of misdeeds by one or two students. But, she explained, she approved the policy revision in 2013 because of the liability issue, the role of the school, and existing staff time commitments to end-of-the-year celebratory events for seniors.
School Committee member Francie Sorrentino explained that a 23-member group, including 13 parents, the police and fire chiefs as well as school personnel forged the revised policy two years ago. "Lenox has a great group of kids, and it's time to move on, you can't go back," she said.
Acknowledging the disappointment of several seniors in the audience, School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan — former principal of Morris Elementary School — noted that "I've known most of your class since kindergarten or earlier and I appreciate the quality of this class and the depth of work you do to bring up something like this. I'm sorry we can't meet your request in the way you'd like it. I think it's the responsible thing that this group has to do. I realize it's a disappointment to you guys."