School policy changes following Cuba trip

An investigation into student complaints about the digital storytelling trip to Cuba over semester break, though disputed by organizers, has led to changes in school policy for trips.

The administration will no longer allow students from other schools to participate in Harvard-Westlake trips during the school year, nor permit outside vendors to serve as chaperones, requiring at least two teachers on all trips. It will also reiterate the alcohol policy, which forbids drinking on the part of both students and chaperones. Head of Upper School Audrius Barzdukas said that the investigation was ongoing and had not yet reached a final conclusion.

“At a dean meeting we compiled the results of their conversations with students, and those conversations suggested that some school policies may not have been followed on the trip,” Barzdukas said. “As a result of having spoken to students and having spoken to [Head of the Visual Arts department and trip organizer Cheri Gaulke], we are going to make some adjustments in our policies.”

More than half of the students on the trip told the Chronicle that alcohol was served to students at meals during the eight-day trip.

Of the 17 students who responded to the Chronicle, 15 said there was student drinking on the trip. Twenty-one Harvard-Westlake students went on the trip, among whom six were Chronicle staffers, in addition to two other students from outside of school.

Students said they were served alcoholic mojitos by restaurant waiters at multiple group lunches and dinners without being told there was alcohol in them. Chaperones were present at the meals where students said they were served the drinks.

In addition to Gaulke, the trip was chaperoned by the director of Friendship Tours World Travel Alethea Tyner Paradis and documentary filmmaker Jeff MacIntyre, according to school registration documents. All three led school trips to Rwanda and Laos in previous years.

Gaulke said she did not drink during the trip, and that if student drinking did take place, the chaperones were unaware of it. She said that students were only served “nojitos” – nonalcoholic mojitos – during group meals. However, some students said that they smelled and tasted alcohol in their drinks, and that when they asked servers whether the drinks contained alcohol, the servers said yes.

“Chaperones were really looking out for if there was student drinking; we did not see any evidence of school drinking, and if students were drinking, they were breaking rules that they had signed in front of their parents,” Gaulke said. “If students are saying now that there was drinking, those students are also violating the contract they signed with us, which said they would report drinking if they knew of it happening.”

Paradis said that chaperones had no knowledge of student drinking on the trip, until it was brought to their attention that a restaurant had inadvertently served an alcoholic drink.

“At that moment and at vulnerable moments thereafter, I personally took measures to inform restaurant wait staff, bartenders and the tour guide that students were not to be served alcohol in any establishment,” Paradis wrote in an email. “Upon arrival at each hotel, restaurants and beach food-service providers, I personally reiterated the ‘no alcoholic beverages for students’ message to personnel. When bottles of rum were placed on the tables at dinnertime, I removed them. While alcohol consumption is ubiquitous in Cuba, in every instance where alcohol was being served, we took steps to maintain the integrity of the students’ contractual agreement to abstain from alcohol, and further report their colleagues’ consumption, should they be in possession of such knowledge. Throughout the trip, we monitored the students’ health and well-being for indications of alcohol consumption and found no evidence of rule violations.”

Several students on the trip agreed that while they drank or were aware of others drinking, they did not believe anyone had approached the chaperones about it.

“Why wreck a good thing?” one student said, while some said they thought it was acceptable because they considered it “part of the Cuban culture.” However, upon returning to school some students approached the deans with their concerns.

“The fact of the matter is I don’t know to what extent, if at all, alcohol was used on this trip,” Director of Kutler Center and Summer Programs Jim Patterson said. “I know what the kids are saying, I know what Ms. Gaulke is saying, and I know that it’s inconsistent, but regardless of that we are going to ensure that our current policies, which are pretty clear, are well-known by all trip participants and chaperones.”

When asked if she was aware that chaperones were not allowed to drink alcohol on school trips, Paradis said that she was not a Harvard-Westlake employee and had not been briefed on any school policies. MacIntyre also responded that because he was not an employee of the school, he did not know the rules regarding travel and chaperones.

Paradis said that there had been no drinking that she was aware of on the school trip to Rwanda in 2014, and the only alcohol offered to students during the 2013 school trip to Laos was a “thimbleful” during a village spiritual ceremony and a farewell dinner.

“Our host manager offered up a thimbleful of rice wine to all of us in prayer, as a gesture of thanks and goodwill,” Paradis wrote in an email. “I and others were deeply moved by the profound sincerity of this cultural offering – some of us tearful and emotionally stunned by the acknowledgement of our impact on these gentle people. I told the students that they were free to decline the sip of wine, and were in no way compelled to drink it.”

Students also brought back Cuban cigars and rum as souvenirs, although they were not legally allowed to bring alcohol into the country because they were under 21. Gaulke said parents had agreed at a meeting prior to the trip that students should be able to bring back cigars and rum as long as they did not consume any of them, and said that she had been unaware that students were not allowed to do so until she was told by U.S. customs officials reentering the country. Students said that several trip participants had their cigars and rum confiscated at Customs.

Paradis will lead another Friendship Tours school trip to Cuba over Spring Break with visual arts teachers Joe Medina and Alyssa Sherwood.

Patterson emphasized that the issues surrounding the Cuba trip had not prompted the changes in school policy. He said that he had planned to reevaluate the trip process since starting his position as external program coordinator in August, and that the issues surrounding the Cuba trip had segued neatly into his appraisal.

“Anytime you have somebody new come into a position, it makes sense early on in that role to review the policies and procedures,” Patterson said, adding that he was organizing a committee to assess the trip proposal process. “Schools evolve and change, and policies that made sense four or five years ago may not be policies that make sense right now.”

Despite the fact that some students reported complaints about the trip to their deans, most students agreed that exploring Cuba was an incredible experience.

“Everything was fine and everyone stayed safe, so it all worked out,” a student said. “And I had a lot of fun.”

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