By Jon Wells, the Hamilton Spectator
The “Marineland mom” controversy highlights a dilemma for educators when it comes to class field trips.
How do schools balance the educational value of a trip with sensitivities to issues that matter to students or parents?
And in an age where parental involvement has never been greater, should a trip be cancelled if objections — or just one objection — are raised?
Stoney Creek mom Jennifer Jamieson, a woman with a passion for social activism (she bills herself on Twitter as Vegetarian Mom and an animal advocate) recently tweeted that she had convinced her 9-year-old son’s teacher to cancel a class trip to Marineland.
Her successful lobbying effort provoked debate online and on talk radio shows in Hamilton and Toronto.
Comments ranged from applauding Jamieson for fighting for what she believes is right — the ethical treatment of animals — to castigating her for not keeping her boy at home and letting other kids at Mountain View Elementary take the trip.
Mixing as they do education, parental authority and, on occasion, social and cultural sensitivities, field trips are fertile ground for controversy.
A trip to Ohio by an Ottawa Catholic high school was cancelled after raising the hackles of parents upset that students were going to help register voters and meet a campaign organizer for Barack Obama — because Obama does not oppose abortion.
Parents in Massachusetts reacted with outrage when a school trip involved students reenacting scenes of slavery from the Underground Railroad.
Creating less of a stir among parents was a recent field trip in Colorado to a gun range where students shot rifles (they had been studying the American Revolution), and a lunch pit-stop for eighth-graders in Baltimore at a Hooters restaurant after they had visited a marine aquarium.
Field trips have been cancelled to other marine facilities such as Sea World in San Diego, after oppositions from parents like Jamieson.
In recent years marine parks have faced public heat for featuring captured dolphins and orca whales in their shows. The backlash has in part been enflamed by documentaries such as Blackfish and The Cove.
Jamieson told The Spectator she also has strong feelings about exotic animals kept at African Lion Safari, and added that her intent had not been to start a feud with her son’s school.
“I just wanted the school to be more informed and consider my suggestions.”
Public school board spokesperson Jackie Penman said that Mountain View school had never formally planned a field trip to Marineland, but that it was one location that was to be discussed. Plans for the trip had not been communicated to parents or students in any official way.
Jamieson’s son’s class is now scheduled to visit Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington instead, which prompted a comment on thespec.com that inadvertently highlighted the slippery slope when it comes to balancing sensitivities and education.
“Much better moral choice, going to RBG on land stolen from First Nations people … located next to a cemetery of dead soldiers that were forced to fight in wars for political greed.”
It might be the case that visiting places, even controversial ones, is a creative way for educators to teach students to peel back the layers of the past and consider context.
Teresa Blum, president of the Ontario Federation of Home and School Associations — a group that represents parents who support public education — suggests that the point of field trips is to get students out there.
“Sometimes parents need to let their children experience the world as it is. Children should be allowed to have as many life experiences as possible.”
Parental input is a tricky thing, suggested Wayne Joudrie, a retired superintendent with the Hamilton public school board. He said it’s up to school principals — he used to be one — to exercise judgment on such issues.
“We have a very well-educated consumer: parents. They expect to have input and that’s a good thing.”
Joudrie hesitated to weigh in on what he would have done as principal if he had one parent opposing a field trip such as the Marineland excursion.
It depends on the situation, he said.
In some cases, a lone voice of protest might be the only one because the parent is dead wrong.
“And sometimes that one person may cause people to stand back and go, ‘hmm…’”
Editor’s note: Jennifer Jamieson declined an interview request from Hamilton Community News for a follow-up story.