Sometimes, fear itself wins out.
That’s one way of looking at a decision by an Ohio school district to cancel an eighth-grade class trip to Washington. In a letter sent to parents last week, the North Ridgeville City school district said it was calling off a three-day visit to the nation’s capital in the spring because of concerns over possible terrorist attacks and mass shootings.
School officials told parents of the 320 eighth-graders at the beginning of the year that the trip would be canceled “if at any point we felt that the safety of our students and staff may be compromised,” according to the letter sent Nov. 8 by North Ridgeville Academic Center Principal Amy Peck, trip adviser Brittany Cioffoletti and Jim Powell, the school district’s superintendent.
“Sadly, we have reached that point,” the letter continued. “Since our parent meeting, we have mourned with many across the country at the loss of lives in Las Vegas, Manhattan and Texas. [Last week,] a man was arrested near the White House after he made threats to the lives of our capital’s police force. All of these incidents at ‘soft targets’ and public places have led to our difficult decision to cancel this year’s trip . . . As you know, the safety of our students and staff is our main priority, and we feel that the risk of travel to Washington, D.C., is not worth the potential for tragedy.”
Powell, who made the decision, said in an interview Tuesday that officials and teachers believed that Washington was a large target for terrorists and that the safety concerns outweighed the benefits of sending students on the trip.
“As a superintendent, every time we send kids on these kind of trips, I worry about it the whole time they’re gone,” he said. “It’s a lot of responsibility.”
Reaction to the decision to cancel the trip to Washington, which the school’s eighth-graders have made the past five years, has been mixed.
“We had parents who said they were not sending their children on the trip because of concerns for safety. But then there were parents saying that we shouldn’t make that kind of decision because it teaches children to fear the world,” Powell said.
Parents interviewed by WJW-TV in Cleveland embodied that divide.
“Crime happens everywhere — do we keep them home and just home-school everyone?” one parent told the television station. “I understand the metropolitan areas are a bigger target, but I don’t think we can live under a rock and not live our lives.”
But another parent told the station, “I’d be afraid to send my child, too, with all the terrorist things going on.”
Powell said the school is considering a student trip to Columbus, the state capital, or to other nearby locations. The decision to cancel the D.C. trip won’t have financial consequences, because no money had been taken from families and no deposits had been paid, Powell said.
Washington has long been a destination for middle school students who travel with their classes as a rite of civic passage.
“For eighth-graders focusing on government, D.C. is the place to go,” said Jonathan Gamza, the president of eduSTAR Student Tours, a New Jersey company that has been arranging trips for 20 years. “We send thousands of kids there every year from all over the country.”
Gamza added that many student trips to numerous big cities were canceled after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but relatively few cancellations in recent years.
“From time to time, people get spooked about issues around the world and they will cancel a trip,” he said. “Parents get nervous about their kids, understandably so. But it hasn’t had an impact on my business.”
Fear hasn’t kept visitors away from Washington. Last year, a record 22 million tourists visited — a 3.3 percent increase over 2015 and the seventh consecutive year of climbing numbers, according to Destination DC, the city’s tourism arm.
About 1.1 million students come to the city annually, according to an estimate based on 2008 data, said Danielle Davis, Destination DC’s director of communications.
Kevin Donahue, the District’s deputy mayor for public safety, said he was disappointed that the Ohio school had canceled its trip. He reached out to the North Ridgeville school district in hopes it will reconsider.
“I know what a big deal it is for students to be able to come to D.C. or come to a city with historic significance in this country,” Donahue said in an interview. “As a city, we have a long history of preparing for any threats against the country or the city.”
If the school changes its plans, Donahue, the father of two middle schoolers, said he will invite the North Ridgeville students to visit his office and “learn more about how the local government in D.C. helps keep visitors and residents safe.”