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Planning well in advance can avoid many perils of school trips

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BOSTON—Many of the problems that can turn student trips from fun learning experiences to risk management headaches—even when the trips are not school-sponsored—can be prevented or minimized with some planning, according to a consultant.

Claims arising from student trips are not a high-frequency problem for schools, but they can be the most severe claims a school district risk manager will see, said Robert Bambino, vp-risk management at Wright Risk Management, the Uniondale, N.Y.-based management company for New York Schools Insurance Reciprocal, a nonprofit insurer.

At a packed session during the Public Risk Management Assn.'s 28th annual conference, held June 10-13 in Boston, Mr. Bambino noted that planned student trips recently have become more adventurous, raising loss exposures for schools. Trips had become far more conservative after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said.

In approving trips, Mr. Bambino suggested a policy under which a school board or superintendent must sign off on excursions that involve serious risks, such as a canoeing trip. The policy could give school principals the authority to approve less risky outings, such as museum visits.

While a school may not have officially sponsored a trip, certain actions could convince the school's insurer and a court otherwise if a claim arose, he said.

The school board's policy and who approved the trip will be some of the factors in determining whether the trip was school-sponsored, he said. The deciding factors, though, will be whether there is a formal approval process, the school's historical practices if there is no formal process, who organized the trip, and the organizer's use of school property and supplies.

If a school is not sponsoring a trip but is allowing an organizer to use its facilities and supplies, it should consider sponsoring the outing so it can manage the trip and its associated risks, Mr. Bambino said.

He added that without formal school approval, a teacher who organizes the trip will not be covered by the school's insurance if a claim arises.

Mr. Bambino also advised risk managers to check whether their schools' general liability and student activities policies cover student trips.

He noted that general liability policies typically do not cover losses arising from chaperones' actions. Coverage for that exposure has to be added through an endorsement, he said.

In risk managers' efforts to reduce risk for approved trips, they should look at the district's exposure in two ways, Mr. Bambino said.

First, prior to the trip, risk managers should ensure that students, parents and chaperones understand the nature of the trip, including its hazards and the rules that will govern the trip, Mr. Bambino said. This is also the time to ensure there are an adequate number of trained chaperones, he said.

For example, Mr. Bambino said, "you get as detailed as you can with the permission form" that is sent to a student's home for parents to sign.

That gives parents an opportunity to question why their child who cannot swim is signing up for a rafting trip or the student who requires numerous medications because of allergies to plants would go on a hiking trip.

"In the most basic way, it might prevent someone from getting injured," Mr. Bambino said.

Schools also should conduct background checks on chaperones and ensure they are under the direction of a school employee during the trip, Mr. Bambino said.

After informing volunteers they must submit to an investigation, "you may have more people who don't want to volunteer anymore," he said.

The second piece of reducing a school's exposure is planning how to respond to problems that could occur during the trip, Mr. Bambino said.

The emergency management plan need not be "anywhere near as sophisticated" as the district's emergency management plan for schools, he said. But the trip plan should cover how chaperones and school employees ought to respond to student illnesses and accidents, auto accidents or breakdowns, hotel fires, civil unrest in foreign countries and weather emergencies.

The plan also should spell out how the district would establish a communication center if an emergency occurred during a student trip, Mr. Bambino said.

"If there is an accident, or worse, while the kids are away, you know what's going to happen," said Mr. Bambino, referring to the deluge of calls a school district would have to handle.

The center would give families one place to call for information and be the contact point for staff in the field, he said. In addition, the school would be able to manage the news media through the center, where reporters could obtain updates at predetermined times.