WEST NEWBURY — It looks like the demise of a time-honored rite of passage for sixth-graders in the Pentucket Regional School District may be imminent.
At the recommendation of Superintendent Jeff Mulqueen, the School Committee is reviewing its policy governing overnight field trips, specifically in regard to the multi-day, sixth-grade environmental camp experience.
During a policy subcommittee meeting on Tuesday, Mulqueen told a roomful of parents — mostly from the Page Elementary School in West Newbury — that for liability and security reasons it was very likely the district would be seeking alternatives to the annual environmental camp that didn’t involve an overnight component.
But at the end of the discussion, parents were still clearly frustrated by what they felt was an arbitrary decision targeting sixth-graders, instead of a well-thought-out, district-wide policy. They wanted to know what “spooked” the sixth-grade teaching team, who had always enthusiastically supported the trip in the past.
The superintendent said initially he started looking at the field trip more closely because of a new state law requiring fingerprinting of any adult granted direct and unmonitored access to students. He found camp counselors weren’t regularly fingerprinted as part of their criminal background checks.
He also learned that under the federal law, teachers were open to a potential lawsuit if Section 504 plans for students with disabilities are not followed on the trip.
Section 504 is part of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 aimed at prohibiting discrimination. It mandates that students with identified mental or physical disabiliities be afforded access to educational benefits equal to that of non-disabled students. Learning disabilities, diabetes, epilepsy, food allergies, low vision, poor hearing and heart disease are some reasons 504 plans are issued.
Although the liability also exists during the regular school day, Mulqueen and the Pentucket Association of Teachers agreed that additional issues associated with overnight trips — such as shared sleeping and bathroom facilities — increased risks for teachers, as well as for those further up the chain of command.