Left out in the cold

Disastrous school trip to inauguration cries out for acountability

We don’t know if it was a sham, a scam or a failure to plan. But Butler High students sure got taken for a ride recently – thanks to a decided lack of oversight by the adults around them.

The 30 students, two teachers and two parents boarded an overnight bus to what they thought would be choice seats and other special perks at the Jan. 21 inauguration of President Obama. But when they arrived, the organizer – a woman identified as Erica Jones with the shadowy DRBJ Legacy Foundation – announced there were only three tickets. The rest of the group had to stand in a nonticketed public area so far away from the event that they could enjoy neither the video screen nor the audio.

The trip cost $135 a person.

No one seems to know what the organization is. It’s not registered with the state. We couldn’t find a website or Facebook presence – neither could the students – nor any news articles about it apart from this incident.

The woman involved apparently gave no one a working phone number, and the cell phone she called others from was a “blocked number,” meaning no one got to see what number she was calling from.

It gets better.

The woman claimed at a pre-trip student assembly to be actually talking to President Obama live on the phone – even seeming to make him wait at times while she interacted with the students.

The students were told their names would be put into a lottery to meet the president; that a photo of them would hang in the president’s library; and that first lady Michelle Obama had read one student’s letter out loud at a dinner and had cried.

Not even Burger King serves up that many whoppers at once! The only thing they weren’t told was that Mr. Obama was stranded in an airport without his wallet and needed cash wired to him quickly.

We can understand the excitement of the students. But how could school officials have been so world-class gullible and negligent?

Moreover, Richmond County School Board member Alex Howard tells us that The Chronicle story Sunday was the first he’d heard of all this.

“It bothers (me) very much that this person was allowed in the schools,” he wrote to us Monday. In addition, he said the trip and the organizer should have been reviewed ahead of time by the district’s lawyer and ultimately approved or disapproved by the school board. That didn’t happen.

What if the students had met with peril? The district, which had no oversight, nonetheless would likely still have been liable. More so, it would seem, since school officials appear to have performed no due diligence to learn anything about this person or her organization.

As it was, students were left out in the cold, as was the school board.

At least one online commenter suggested the White House should make the students’ dreams come true and invite the kids to Washington. We think that would be fabulous.

Meanwhile, Butler High officials must be called to account for this outrage. It may rise to the level of a fireable offense. On the thinnest of information, they allowed someone access to those kids in a school environment, and therefore helped perpetrate the trip from hell. And they seem to have done it without any curiosity about the grand promises being made, the woman’s ability to deliver on them, or the obligation to let the district office in on any of it.

Butler Principal Greg Thompson refused to discuss the situation withThe Chronicle, claiming the trip technically wasn’t a school function. Tell that to the jury; it was sold on campus, and students say the school bookkeeper handled the funds.

You can understand the students wanting with all their hearts for all those promises to have been true. It was up to the adults to figure out they weren’t.

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