The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Taking a class trip to D.C. doesn’t come with a license to behave badly

(Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Timothy Leslie is a retired technical writer and journalist who lives in Vancouver, Wash.

In mid-May, on the first day of my first-ever visit to D.C., I learned something extremely disappointing and entirely unexpected: Unruly and disinterested teenage students who are on school-sponsored class trips to the National Mall are ruining the experience for others.

My visit got off to a great start. I stood in silent awe as I gazed upon the original Star-Spangled Banner, one of the most treasured artifacts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. There it was, the actual flag hoisted over the federal garrison at Fort McHenry on the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, to signal American victory over the British in the Battle of Baltimore; the actual flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write what would become our national anthem.

As I soaked up the majesty of the enormous old flag, the other visitors in the darkened chamber seemed to share my sense of reverence for this incredible piece of U.S. history. When they spoke at all, they whispered or spoke softly, and no one tried to take photographs, which the museum prohibits. At that point, a large group of teenage students, all wearing identical class trip T-shirts, walked into the exhibit. That was not a surprise. Before entering the museum that afternoon, I had passed dozens of such school groups as they emerged from the countless charter buses that lined the streets on both sides of the National Mall. But what happened next did surprise me. The students talked loudly, pushed one another and appeared to have little interest in their surroundings. As the teens noisily jostled for a position in front of the exhibit, one girl pulled out her phone and took a flash photo.

With the Star-Spangled Banner’s captivating spell temporarily broken by the commotion, I exited the small chamber and turned my attention to an interactive tabletop screen that displayed magnified digital images of the old flag. By touching or waving a hand over the circular “targets” that appear to float above the massive screen, visitors can access informational pop-up boxes that offer key details about the flag’s history. I was happily engaged with this display when three teenage girls peeled off from their school group and stood beside me. Before long, the girls began randomly swatting the digital targets and laughing loudly. Now unable to concentrate on the display, I turned and spoke to the girl standing closest to me. “This is not a game,” I said. The girl slowly turned her head and gave me a look that seemed to say, “Are you serious?” She and her friends then continued banging on the screen until they finally tired of it and walked away.

During my remaining two days on Capitol Hill, I paid special attention to these groups of students, who seemed completely unaware that their antics might tarnish the names of the high schools and towns displayed so prominently on their T-shirts. I watched as a museum staffer tried her best to tame groups of teens who were racing through the U.S. Botanic Garden. I observed five teenage girls push through crowds as they rushed from one museum display to another, stopping only long enough to take selfies. And I witnessed wave after wave of students taking skyward photos of their feet pressed against the Washington Monument, the venerable memorial defiled by dirty shoes and reduced to an Instagram prop. In each of these incidents, teachers and chaperones were either absent or unwilling to intervene.

This unacceptable behavior from our youths is disappointing because it shows such disregard for the incredible history and culture of our nation’s capital and such disrespect for other visitors. Of course, much of the blame must be borne by the schools and teachers who are failing to prepare their students for such activities.

I would suggest four steps that schools should take to improve this situation.

Require an equity stake. Humans often devalue the things they receive free. Schools should require students to participate in extracurricular fundraising events as a condition of signing up for a class trip.

Assign topical homework. We cannot expect students to care about events and artifacts they know nothing about. Weeks before a trip, teachers should assign meaningful reading and writing assignments with completion due before departure.

Communicate the ground rules. Students deserve to know the rules in advance and how teachers will enforce them during the trip. Schools must clearly define and reinforce the limits for acceptable behavior.

Punish bad behavior. Chaperones and teachers must respond immediately to transgressions. A student will not soon forget the interminable afternoon spent in exile on the charter bus.

If every school would take the time to implement these simple steps, it would make future class trips to D.C. and elsewhere more enjoyable for everyone.

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