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Schools send students wrong message about fear

USA Today (05/06/2003)

By Marilyn Thomsen

Last month, 94 band members at my daughter’s high school became some of Osama bin Laden’s latest victims. He didn’t attack their bodies. He killed their dream. His accomplices were all the rest of us who let ourselves live in fear.

Two months from now those kids, with their director and parental chaperones, were going to perform in concerts across England and Ireland. They had already raised thousands of dollars for the tour, a highlight of their high school career. The trip was abruptly canceled by a vote of the school board. As one administrator explained, “A hundred American kids on buses would be too big a target. It’s just too big a liability,”

“ Orange alerts” during the war in Iraq caused a lot of school districts to feel the same way. In the past few months, parents have been complaining about forfeited deposits on trips that were canceled because of travel jitters. And, no doubt, the students have been left hurt and confused. For instance:

* In February, schools in Anne Arundel County, Md., canceled all field trips outside the county. That included an overnighter to Hershey Park, Pa., and a trip to Quebec that students had planned since the start of the school year, according to The Washington Post.

* School districts in at least 15 states, from Massachusetts to Hawaii, made similar moves and canceled or deferred student trips for fear of a terrorist attack, the Associated Press reported in February.

* A single mom from Georgia lamented to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she lost nearly $500 when her daughter’s high school canceled a chorus trip to New York City after a teacher made a scouting expedition in March and was fearful of riots and protests.

Schools stand down for now

Normalcy has returned, or so it seems. International tensions have eased, “orange“ has diluted to “yellow,” and most school districts have loosened restrictions on student travel (except to areas beset by SARS). But it’s only a matter of time, of course, before the next terror alert raises our guard again.

I can only hope school officials realize that during the past few months they’ve been teaching our kids to be afraid of the world — hardly the lesson they need in a global society. “Our kids are getting mixed messages: We (adults) should live our lives as usual, but we're not going to let you live your life as usual,” says Randall Osborne, a social psychologist at Southwest Texas State University.

Kathy Pezdek, a cognitive psychologist at Claremont Graduate University, took her kids to Washington during spring break. “Children rely on adults to help them interpret and construct the reality around them,” she says. “If we give them fearful interpretations of events in the world, that will be the children’s experience as well,”

A country of scaredy-cats?

Americans have just proved again that we have the most powerful military in history. But as long as we run from every potential or imagined danger, we ourselves are not free. We create the perception in our children’s minds that the whole world is out to get us. We convey the message to them that it’s better to stay at home and hunker down than to venture out in the world.

We have become prisoners of our own imaginations. And our kids pay the price in the lost opportunities of a lifetime.

So I have a modest proposal. Rather than cancel field trips, let’s admit to our children that bad things sometimes do indeed happen. Tragedy knows no boundaries or nationality.

But we get into our cars and drive the freeways and highways of this country despite the fact that more than 40,000 people a year die in traffic accidents. On average, lightning kills 73 Americans a year, but that doesn’t make us stay inside. We still hike and swim and play ball.

Risk is something we live with; fear is something we overcome.

Going on a school field trip may seem a small way to conquer the fear that war and terrorism breed. But in the eyes of our kids, it’s very big. What we plant in their minds today will bear fruit in the kind of nation we are tomorrow. Let’s help them see the world — New York, London and Hershey Park. And while we're at it, let’s look out the windows of the plane or bus and thumb our noses at bin Laden.