Seven Signal Mountain Middle-High School staff members were suspended for consuming alcohol while chaperoning a school-sanctioned senior class trip to the Bahamas last month.
Hamilton County Schools central office staff conducted an investigation into the chaperones' behavior and doled out two-week unpaid suspensions to five of the employees, while placing two counselors on unpaid suspension until the end of the school year.
Investigators determined the seven drank on the trip, though it doesn't appear they drank with any of the 75 seniors.
Schools Superintendent Rick Smith did not return calls Monday.
But other officials said the investigation wrapped up just weeks after school administrators disciplined 16 students for violating school policies and drinking while their ship was docked in the Bahamas.
The investigation and resulting student and teacher suspensions have triggered questions over the appropriateness of taking an international cruise and the merit of such school-sponsored class trips.
"Sometimes I question the elaborate senior trips that some of these schools take," said Board of Education Chairman Mike Evatt. "I understand it is a special time of their lives. But to take seniors on a cruise ship, I think you're setting yourself up to have problems."
Counselors LeAnn Welch and Anne Cushing prompted the central office investigation after being caught with alcohol at school, officials said. Welch is the wife of Jonathan Welch, a Signal Mountain dentist who is running unopposed in the August election for the District 2 school board seat, which is being vacated by Chip Baker.
Jonathan Welch said the incident hasn't changed his desire to serve on the school board.
"I think they all made mistakes, and the superintendent's apparently dealt with it," he said.
The investigation implicated the other five chaperones, who included Assistant Principal Jason McKinney, college adviser Sandy Mitchum, registrar Lizetta Paturalski, teacher Steve Redman and guidance counselor Leslie Sharpe, who is the wife of Robert Sharpe, the school system's assistant superintendent of secondary education, a position that oversees all Hamilton County middle and high schools.
The Carnival Cruise Lines trip embarked from Charleston, S.C., and included stops in Freeport and Nassau in the Bahamas before returning to Jacksonville, Fla. The trip, sponsored by Sraight A Tours, included two full days at sea and two daylong stops in the Bahamas. Including the cost of a charter bus, students paid $940 for the trip, which one student organized as part of a senior project.
The travel agent billed the cruise as a bonding experience for seniors and touted karaoke, 24-hour dining, dancing and shore excursions as features of the March 2-7 trip.
"After 12 years of studying and hard work -- take time to LIVE IT UP!!" promotional materials read.
A company spokesman said the drinking age aboard all Carnival cruises is 21, though the legal drinking age in the Bahamas, where the students were caught drinking, is only 18. The 16 students who were caught by chaperones received suspensions, ranging from three days to 10 days after returning home. Some students missed prom, while others were banned from senior activities, depending on the circumstances.
The chaperones weren't drinking with the students and were only recently caught because of the investigation into the two counselors, officials said. The counselors were removed from school last week, while the other five educators' suspensions began on Monday. Temporary staff members have been brought in to help fill vacancies.
To attend the cruise, parents and students had to agree to clearly defined rules, which banned the use of alcohol and tobacco on the ship and at port stops. In addition to attending meetings, students had to sign pledges holding them accountable to the rules.
"You couldn't do anything you can't do on school campus," said one senior who attended the cruise.
The senior, who wasn't suspended, said the students who drank were not representative of the group, as most students followed the rules and stayed out of trouble.
Signal Mountain's senior trip was approved by the school board, along with several other field trips, during its December meeting as part of the consent agenda. School board members say they look at such requests, but usually rely on the recommendations of school and system leaders. Trip requests rarely are removed from the consent agenda for discussion, though that now may change.
"This is an embarrassment to the Hamilton County school system. And it's an opportunity to set precedence for how future field trips are reviewed by the board. They will be scrutinized more heavily," Evatt said.
School board member Jeffrey Wilson said he didn't think school officials' intents were malicious, though he said they should have used more caution in planning the trip.
"This day in time, I think we need to use more discretion," he said. "As a parent, I don't know how ready I would be to send my senior on a cruise."
Board member Linda Mosley said she took a senior trip to Florida as a teen. She said she thinks such trips are appropriate as long as there's adequate supervision. But traveling outside the United States is a different story.
"I think we need to not be in international borders or waters so we can control the drinking age," Mosley said.
School board member Chip Baker, whose son went on the cruise but was not suspended, said senior trips are a chance for students to celebrate the end of their 12 years together. Signal Mountain seniors traveled to New York City last year without incident.
"I'm not sure if a cruise is the best idea or not," Baker said. "But certainly, it's a chance for kids to socialize."
Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...
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