Concerns arise on trip to Death Valley

Sammi Handler

Concerns that some students were using illegal substances marred the March 14-16 geology trip to Death Valley, geology teacher and trip chaperone Wendy Van Norden said.

Van Norden noticed that “some students were acting unusually lethargic,” but she originally assumed it was due to Death Valley’s heat. Van Norden told some of the lethargic students to stay on the bus with the driver while the rest of the group went on a two-hour hike.

“We were worried when one student who did take the hike was staggering,” she said. “The student had ignored my directions to take water. I got the student to drink from my spare water bottle, but that seemed to have little effect. We were getting worried, especially when the students who did not take the hike were still lethargic. I cut the field trip short and we returned to Furnace Creek. We were completely convinced that some kind of drug was involved when one student started to act in a totally irrational manner in Furnace Creek.”

Van Norden urged students to tell her if they were using any substances. If medical attention was needed, the nearest hospital was 100 miles away in Lone Pine.

“I told students that we believed that they had taken some kind of drug,” Van Norden said. “I tried to impart to them how dangerous this was, and I pleaded with them to tell me what they took so that I could inform the doctors if they needed medical help. I was met with only silence.”

No students needed medical assistance. By the time chaperones were convinced drugs were involved, “the first students were clearly on the mend,” Van Norden said.

Trip chaperones did not search students’ belongings for illegal substances.

“It seemed unlikely that we would find anything, if there was anything left to be found,” Van Norden said. “It would be difficult to identify ingestible marijuana substances and difficult to find anything as small as pills that could be easily disguised as over-the-counter medication.”

Due to the remoteness of Death Valley, the chaperones could not alert school administration about their concerns until their return, so the trip carried on as scheduled the next day.

“I am sure that students enjoyed the rest of the trip, but we were all affected by the incident,” Van Norden said. “I am terribly disappointed in the students who were involved. They recklessly endangered their lives without any consideration of the consequences.”

Head of Upper School Audrius Barzdukas said that the bus returned from Death Valley the evening of March 16, and he was notified of the issue the next morning. Barzdukas would not comment on disciplinary actions as a result of an investigation into the allegations. The students involved also declined to comment.

“What you want to do is reassure the school and the community that we do have standards of behavior, and that we uphold those standards,” Barzdukas said.

Deans asked some students who went on the trip questions about possible substance use, students on the trip said.

There may be changes to protocols regarding future geology trips, although it is too soon to tell, Van Norden said.

“I sincerely hope that all of the students involved are able to learn from the incident and will get the help that they need in order to move forward towards a healthier life,” she said.