Ethical Educator

Sampling Vintages Overseas
School Administrator, March 2016

A high school teacher serves as a chaperone of a school-sponsored trip to Europe with a dozen students during spring break. During the trip, the educator and several students who were of legal age consume alcohol in the country they are visiting, sampling a few varieties of wine. Students’ parents learn of the consumption following the trip and complain to the high school principal, who advises the superintendent of the matter. How should the administrators handle the complaint?

Mario Ventura:
A teacher involved in the act of consuming alcohol with students on a school-sponsored trip to Europe is unethical and in violation of district policy. Educators are held to the highest standards of professionalism. Trust in the education profession by parents and community is dependent upon the ethical conduct of staff.

The trip to Europe was a school-sponsored event, which implies district policy should be followed by the supervising staff.  In this scenario, the chaperone had a professional and ethical obligation to promote the health, safety and well-being of students. The chaperone used poor judgment in sampling wine with students. The behavior of the chaperone was reckless and had the potential to place students in harm’s way. The act also crossed the acceptable social boundaries that should be maintained between educators and students.

The incident held no educational value for the high school students and was not relevant to the district-sponsored trip. The district needs to demonstrate to the parents and community that this type of behavior and poor judgment are not in-line with the district’s values and policies. The superintendent should instruct the school administrator to conduct a formal investigation and report the findings to the human resources department. The district should seek to terminate the teacher if the findings are as reported by the parents.

Sarah Mackenzie:
It’s hard to imagine that a teacher/chaperone would not have informed parents ahead of time of the possibility that students would be able to drink in the country they were visiting. There are usually permission signoffs for parents before a student trip, so it’s surprising a notification regarding students’ drinking was not one of them.

Perhaps the parents are complaining about the teacher partaking along with the students. To me, this is quite civilized and is far better than students going off by themselves to drink. They may well have, but this is the one story they told to their parents.

At any rate, the superintendent and/or the principal should talk with the teacher and notify him or her of the complaints. But there should be no disciplinary action for the teacher. The situation highlights, though, that in the future the school, in sponsoring trips like this, must have a policy about notifications of parents ahead of time regarding such things as the drinking age and the role of the chaperone in overseeing students’ free time.

When I took students abroad — more than 25 years ago -- we made clear in all of the literature about the trip what the chaperones’ roles would be and when students would be on their own in countries where many of them were of legal drinking age. We were explicit, too, about consequences for students who got into any difficulties not only because of alcohol consumption but also because of transporting or using illegal drugs. On that trip, we had to send a young man home before the plane even took off.

Situations like this case may well be why school systems are less willing to sponsor trips for high school students and prefer to send middle school students instead.

Kelly Henson:  
Because it is a school-sponsored trip, the consumption of alcohol by both the teacher and the students must be addressed.  It is understood that, in many countries, the consumption of alcohol by students of this age is perfectly permissible, and certainly in countries such as France and Italy, the sampling of wines is a cultural experience.  However, that cannot supersede the fact that the consumption of alcohol by the teacher and students is not permissible. The educator not only consumed alcohol in the presence of students, but also allowed students to consume alcohol.

The administration must make it clear that an educator’s responsibilities do not end when he/she crosses either state lines or leaves the country with students. Regardless of where an educator is with his/her students, the educator must comply with applicable policies and laws of the state and school district.

Certainly, the district must do a better job making teachers aware of policies that govern off-campus and out-of-country experiences. And, the superintendent must communicate to principals to be aware of these types of activities and appropriately guide teachers.  This guidance will help prevent situations such as the one in this scenario where no one is pleased with the outcome.

Shelley Berman:
Wine sampling by students who meet the legal age of the visited country may seem innocuous, just part of the country’s culture. However, it is a serious error of judgment on the teacher’s part that should result in significant discipline, if not dismissal. The drinking age in the host country is irrelevant.

As a chaperone and district employee, the teacher is responsible for ensuring that students are safe and avoid the use of alcohol or drugs. The rules that students and parents agreed to when enrolling in the trip almost assuredly specified that students follow school rules and not use alcohol during the trip. Even as a cultural experience, the consumption of wine violates those rules. In the U.S., purchasing or providing alcohol for underage youth, or even attending an event where alcohol is being consumed by underage youth, is illegal and would end a teacher’s career.

As educators, we want students to experience other countries’ cultures; but we also carry our own cultural guidelines with us, particularly when it comes to an activity that would be illegal or simply against school rules in the home state. There may be some mitigating circumstances, such as inexperience, to justify something less than dismissal of this teacher. However, the seriousness of the incident leaves administrators with few options.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Kelly Henson, executive director, Georgia Professional Standards Commission; Sarah MacKenzie, associate professor of educational leadership, University of Maine at Orono; and Mario Ventura, superintendent, Isaac School District, Phoenix, Ariz., and member of the Model Code of Educator Ethics Task Force.