School trips in grip of fear

Once textbook civic lessons come to life, school trips to US capital are now 'terror tours' fraught with tight security measures, reports SYLVIA MORENO. 

FOR 30 years, each graduating class of Southminster Day School in Alabama, in the United States, has travelled to Washington to look in on Congress at work, tour the People's House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and see textbook civics lessons come to life.  

Last spring, a contingent from the small private school on Birmingham's southern edge braved the post-Sept 11 aftershock, flying here in the wake of the terrorist attacks as federal officials scrambled to institute new, tough security measures. 

Recently, the fifth-graders, parents, teachers and principal returned again. And they found out how things have really changed.  

No last-minute, let's-visit-this-or-that whim allowed. Appointments required; no tours left to chance. No motor coaches allowed on Route 110, along the east side of the Pentagon. No tours of FBI headquarters.  

No parents in the White House. No large backpacks. No spray bottles or aerosols. No liquids or bag lunches in the Capitol. No water bottles in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum unless the visitor takes a sip first to show guards that the liquid is benign. No metal objects (not even a mint tin) because they set magnetometers abuzz. No knives of any size, of course.  

At least they missed Code Orange, when there was no walking along the sidewalks on either side of the White House, no walk-up tours of the Capitol and no scheduled White House tours.  

NARROW MISS: Parent Patricia Woodard and students gaze upward inside the Capital Rotunda during the tour which they nearly missed because they were three minutes late.

Today's school tour of the nation's capital is a logistical feat, and even the best-laid plans can go awry. Southminster was made all too aware of that. 

The lesson came although the group has the wherewithal of a presidential advance team. Principal Regina Covin and her teachers have years of experience in organising educational trips. They have the 28-year wisdom of Group Tour Co of Washington and Sandra Sheskin's 14 years as a licensed member of Washington's Guild of Professional Tour Guides. And the school has a close relationship with its congressman, Spencer Bachus, whose two daughters are Southminster graduates.  

Still, earlier this month, 19 students and 20 adults from the school lost their 11.35am slot for a congressional staff-led tour because they were three minutes late to check in at the Capitol Guide Service Kiosk. Nevermind that they'd been on the Capitol grounds since 9am and had their picture snapped with Bachus on the east steps under the watchful eye of a Capitol Police officer armed with a G36 assault rifle.  

“Washington is your capital, and this is your Capitol,'' Bachus told the children and adults, dressed in their lime green Southminster T-shirts, as they listened attentively after the photo shoot. “You will have a right to participate all your life in what goes on here.''  

But first, they had to go through security. They all walked through a metal detector and had a thorough purse and pack check by Capitol Police, after which Bachus took them on a private mini-tour of the House Dining Room and one wing of the original Capitol.  

Then they gave up their cameras, cell phones, beepers, purses and bags before entering the House and Senate galleries with passes courtesy of Bachus. And still, they had to go back outside to check in for their official tour, and with all the walking and the remote location (for security reasons) of the check-in kiosk, they arrived at 11.38am and lost their tour slot. Their tour was rescued only through the intercession of a harried Bachus staffer.  

There was always security at the Capitol and White House, said Sheskin, the tour guide, “but never to the degree that we have now.''  

“We might not like it, but we certainly understand the reasons for it,'' she said.  

These 10- and 11-year-olds do, too. For them, the Korean War Veterans Memorial or the Marine Corps War Memorial may just be “neat'' displays of large soldier statues. But the Sept 11 exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History resonated.  

“I felt sort of sad, seeing all that and seeing all those people being sad,'' said Daniel Margadonna, 11, whose family lived in the New Jersey suburbs until he was seven. “I used to go to the World Trade Centre and look out the windows at the very top.''  

“I'm glad we have (security) so that terrorists can't get through without being detected,'' said David Woodard, 11.  

And security may get even tighter. One possible plan is to check the names of all visitors to the Capitol to see if they are on national watch lists or have any felony warrants.  

“We do think it would be a great idea, and it is something we are currently exploring and discussing with the leadership of Congress,'' said Capitol Police spokeswoman Jessica Gissubel. “We are exploring all the pros and cons on how we can do this efficiently without causing major inconveniences.''  

Will touring Washington ever be convenient again? Not likely, said Chris Babb, whose family has operated Group Tour Co for almost three decades.  

“A lot of people come to Washington and they are so fed up with security checks and hoops they had to go through that they wonder was it really worth their effort. In some cases, they only get to look at the exterior of buildings,'' he said.  

“It's not the experience it was, and our perspective is that these institutions aren't called the people's houses for nothing. Yet people don't have access to them.'' Babb estimates that his company lost half of its business to Washington last spring because of the Sept 11, 2001, attacks and that it will probably end up losing one third of it this spring because of Code Orange and the subsequent war on Iraq. 

HOME GROUND: The Southminster Day School group is photographed with congressman Spencer Bachus (far right) at Capitol Hill.

To keep customers happy and willing to return, he said, the company instituted a full refund policy for any group cancelling because of security concerns. It also now promises to use the tour bus to drive a group home, no matter where, if air travel is suspended because of a national emergency.  

One Southminster parent remembered a different Washington 10 years ago. Jeanette Palmer, accompanying children Aubrey, 11, and Benjamin, nine, recalled tourist sites as accessible and easy to navigate, although with more tourists.  

“There weren't all the metal detectors, and it was much more crowded than this. The traffic was terrible, but it was pretty easy to get into places,'' she said. “It's just sad ... metal detectors and all these guns. That's just not the way we've lived before.''  

Overall, the Southminster group's three-day trip went fairly smoothly. The White House tour was a favourite with the girls. “We got to see all the dance rooms,'' said Jennifer Cleary, 11.  

The boys favoured the Washington Monument, the International Spy Museum and Ford's Theatre, where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  

“Like the lady said there, it's not a monument or a memorial. It's actually history,'' Benjamin Palmer said.  

Last Thursday, the 39 representatives of Birmingham's Southminster Day School went through their final security check, at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and boarded their flight home.  

Security measures notwithstanding, Southminster has already booked next May's trip for the fifth-grade graduating Class of 2004. – LAT-WP 

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