Wichita school district to review its field-trip policy

Sidney Brush has chaperoned her share of school field trips over the years — to art museums, candy stores, the Sedgwick County Zoo.

"Exhausting," recalls Brush, a Wichita mom whose youngest daughter is in middle school. "If you're taking on the responsibility of watching these kids and you're not used to doing that, it can be absolutely exhausting."

When she heard a Wichita student, a first-grader at Linwood Elementary, had been clawed by a leopard last week during a field trip to the zoo, her first thoughts were for the injured boy and his family, hoping they were OK.

Her next thought: "I feel for that chaperone, whoever it is. . . . I've been to the zoo this time of year, and it's not easy. There are just so many kids out there."

Wichita school officials say the incident has prompted them to review their policy and protocol regarding field trips, but trips to the zoo and elsewhere will continue.

"I've been here a long time now, and we've never had anything of this nature happen," said Alicia Thompson, assistant superintendent for elementary schools. "I just think this was a fluke kind of thing."

Thompson said she couldn't comment specifically about Friday's incident, which is still being investigated. But she said Linwood teachers had an appropriate number of adult chaperones on the trip, and that "board policies were followed."

The boy went home from the hospital Monday after suffering injuries to his neck and face. Zoo officials said the boy climbed over a guard rail and approached the leopard's cage. The leopard reached its paw through the fence of its enclosure and grabbed the boy's face, they said.

The boy was one of three children in a group being supervised by a parent volunteer, Thompson said. She would not say whether the chaperone was the child's parent or where the adult was when the attack happened.

"It is still being investigated," said district spokeswoman Susan Arensman.

Wichita district policy encourages principals and teachers to plan instructional activities "inside and outside the classroom."

According to the policy, "School trips are considered an integral part of the curriculum. Preparation, plans, evaluation, and safety precautions are responsibilities of the principal and teachers involved."

The policy does not dictate a specific adult-child ratio for field trips.

"It really depends upon where you're going, the situation you'll be in," Thompson said.

For young students at the zoo, a "good general rule" is three to five students per chaperone, she said. Teachers are encouraged to review rules and expectations with students and parent volunteers before the trip, to go over the day's agenda and to share cell phone numbers with chaperones.

Camille Snyder, a Wichita mother of three, said she has chaperoned probably two dozen field trips and "never had an issue at all with feeling overwhelmed."

"Chaperoning does require an amount of work, but there's a good trust between the teachers and the chaperones," said Snyder, who recently chaperoned her first-grader's trip to the Wichita Art Museum.

A common challenge with young children, said Snyder and others, is keeping them in sight, especially at the zoo. In April or May — prime field trip months — thousands of youngsters visit the zoo, and crowds can be overwhelming.

"There was once or twice that I was given one of the more challenging students," said Brush, whose daughters attended Mueller Elementary. "And I would just make them hold my hand.

"We would go back to the petting zoo, and I remember telling the kids not to approach the peacocks or the geese that were nesting," she said. "They're kids, and they're wanting to look at stuff, so you just have to be constantly vigilant."

Zoo officials said last week's leopard attack could result in changes to the zoo's guidelines for field trips. The zoo does not require a specific adult-child ratio; it offers one free teacher or chaperone pass for every 10 students.

School board member Betty Arnold said the attack, while an isolated incident, "is a kind of reminder of what can happen" on field trips and elsewhere.

"We'll take the opportunity to look at what we could do, how we can make sure this doesn't occur in the future," she said. "If it's a matter of supervision, I certainly hope the message is that we'd rather see a trip postponed or canceled than risk the safety of a child."

Brush said she hopes more parents volunteer as chaperones because lots of learning takes place outside the classroom.

"People don't realize that we have an inner-city district, and (for) a lot of these kids, the only time they see a cow is in a picture book or on TV," she said. "I didn't really realize that until taking my kids' classes to the zoo. So I think it's important."

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