Changes recommended for Lewiston school field trips

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Lewiston High School teacher and registered Maine Guide Corey Walker addresses the School Committee on Monday night, saying proposed changes to the department’s field trip policy go too far. (Bonnie Washuk/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — Superintendent Bill Webster on Monday proposed sweeping changes to the School Department’s field trip policy, which some School Committee members said go too far.

The changes are in response to the death 13-year-old Rayan Issa, a Lewiston Middle School student who drowned during a school outing at Range Pond State Park in Poland on June 12. He was retrieving a football in water over his head. A report by the Lewiston School Department’s lawyer, Daniel Stockfield, concluded neither adults nor the lifeguard saw the boy in distress.

Webster’s proposal include:

• No more swimming or boating activities, unless an outside group with water safety expertise ensures safety, including the YMCA, the YWCA, Bates College, the University of Maine 4-H Camp and Learning Center in Bryant Pond, the Chewonki Foundation, Camp Kieve and L.L.Bean. If water safety experts do not go on field trips, students could only go into the water up to their ankles, and only if a lifeguard is on duty and there is one authorized adult for every six students.

• A meeting would be held at the beginning of field trips to go over safety rules with students and implement a buddy system.

• Field trip permission slips would have far greater detail of risks in the outing and would be in the language of the student’s family.

• Water park trips would be prohibited.

Webster said administrators “feel the great weight of responsibility” regarding Issa’s death. He said too often staff has assumed responsibility for activities “for which we do not have the best knowledge of best practices.”

Some committee members said Webster’s proposals go too far.

Several agreed Lewiston High School teacher and registered Maine Guide Corey Walker, said students should “have the opportunity to access the water. … We have 4,500 miles of coastline, over 4,600 islands, hundreds of thousands of square miles of lakes, ponds, streams, rivers.”

Walker, who is licensed by the Coast Guard to operate and carry passengers on his boat, said there are billions of dollars of revenue that come from those natural resources.

“Don’t throw a blanket over (this) saying we’re going to prohibit water. I’ve brought many students out on the water from Lewiston High School. I’m hoping to bring many more.” His top concern is safety, he said.

Tragedies do happen, “and that’s awful,” Walker said. “But you can’t put your head in the sand and say we’re not going to let our students in Lewiston go to those wonderful things we have in our state because we had a tragedy. Have a buddy system. Let’s learn from the bad experience we had.”

Walker agreed that more precautions are needed. He cautioned that the list of water safety experts was too small, that Maine registered guides can safely bring students and teachers on expeditions.

When writing new policy, “make sure you’re thinking of small companies too,” he said.

School Committee member Tanya Estabrook said she liked what Walker had to say, and suggested he be involved in policy revisions.

Member Tina Hutchinson said she could not support the policy as proposed, that students need to experience Maine’s water to consider careers such as marine biology. Years ago three students died during an Air Force Jr. ROTC flight, Hutchinson said, but students studying the Air Force “got back up in the air.” Losing a student is hard,” she said, but “I would caution we don’t overreact.”

The committee will look at field trip proposals at its meetings in late September or October.

“I like the fact we’re looking at this,” Estabrook said. Permission slips will have more information to allow parents to better decide whether their students should go. “That’s a big step.”

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