CINCINNATI – The itinerary for most school field trips to Washington, D.C., is usually as busy as it is predictable: See some monuments on the National Mall, check out the Smithsonian museums and don’t miss the bus to the next stop.
But trips to the annual March for Life are different.
They're not typically as different as Covington Catholic High School’s visit last week, which ended with the Park Hills, Kentucky, school and its students embroiled in a made-for-Twitter political firestorm, but still unlike the sight-seeing excursions kids sign up for at most schools.
The March for Life trips are built around student activism at a single event about a single issue on a single day in Washington. Catholic schools, where students are taught abortion is an intrinsic evil, have been organizing excursions to the anti-abortion marches for years.
This has never been just another field trip for the students or their parent chaperones, and abortion has never been just another issue in America’s culture wars.
“It’s not designed to be a vacation,” said Kris Knochelmann, who chaperoned a Covington Catholic trip to the march two years ago with his son. “It’s designed to be a mission. It’s something special.”
The visits tend to be short, usually consisting of an overnight bus ride, a rally, the march and a long ride home. Students from some schools stay overnight. Others arrive the morning of the march and ride home the same day.
The field trips also tend to be less scripted than the days-long guided tours that have become a rite of passage for many American high school and middle school students.
Those who have been part of the March for Life field trips, however, say that less scripted doesn’t mean less organized or less supervised. And Covington Catholic chaperones have pushed back against criticism they didn’t do enough to prevent the incident on the Mall over the weekend.
But given the widening divide in American politics and the ugliness that often springs from it, bringing students to the March for Life is more complicated than it used to be. These students aren't just visiting the places where political debate occurs. They're participating in that debate.
Diocese of Covington officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Over the weekend, they issued a statement saying they “condemned” the behavior of some of the students who appeared in videos posted online from the Mall in Washington.
Those early videos showed Covington Catholic students, some wearing bright red “Make America Great Again” hats, around a Native American man who had participated in the nearby Indigenous Peoples March.
Some of the students made chopping motions with their arms, laughed and chanted while the man, Nathan Phillips, beat his drum and sang. One student stood in front of Phillips, staring at him.
Longer versions of the video later emerged that showed Phillips approaching the students as members of a group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites shouted insults, some of them sexual in nature, at the students. Phillips said he was trying to get between the groups to defuse the tension.
The early videos elicited outrage on social media from people who saw the boys as instigators trying to intimidate Phillips. The later videos brought a similar response from the boys’ defenders, who complained they’d been set up or unfairly maligned.
The back-and-forth quickly became part of the broader political and cultural fights roiling the nation. The encounter wasn't about abortion, but the March for Life and the boys' red hats, which are symbols of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, were lightning rods for both their critics and defenders on social media.
One of the chaperones on the trip, Val Andreev, said the adults who were with the students did everything they could to avoid trouble on the Mall. He said participants didn't realize their experience on the Mall had become a national outrage until they got home the next day and saw themselves all over the internet.
“There was nothing the chaperones could have done differently,” said Andreev. “I’m very proud the way the boys handled the situation.”
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati and the Diocese of Covington both leave planning for the field trips to the individual schools. The schools arrange transportation, round up chaperone volunteers, establish the dress code and set the agenda for the students.
Archdiocese of Cincinnati spokesman Mike Schafer said the archdiocese recommends a student-to-chaperone ratio of no more than 10 to 1, and Knochelmann said the same is true for Covington Catholic trips. That’s in line with ratios for other school field trips, according to tour guide companies.
The videos show few adults around the Covington Catholic students during the encounter and none close to where Phillips was banging his drum. Some can be heard later in the video telling students to move.
The students and chaperones said they were waiting for a bus to pick them up after the march when the encounter occurred.
Tour guide companies wouldn’t say much about the incident last week, but several said Tuesday that good chaperone supervision is crucial to the success of any trip, whether it involves a political march or more traditional tour.
“I put the greatest burden on the chaperones,” said Matt Koke, a tour coordinator for e.e. tours in New York City.
Carylann Assante, executive director of the Student & Youth Travel Association, said it’s not unusual for chaperones to give students some time to explore a place like the Mall without chaperones right at their side.
“We use it to build self-esteem leadership skills, being responsible for yourself, traveling with a group,” she said. “People look at this experience not to be babysat the whole time.”
Church and school officials probably will take weeks or months to decide whether to make changes ahead of next year's March for Life. They know the political climate isn't likely to change and abortion will remain a hot-button issue.
Knochelmann said he expects students to keep going to the march, regardless, and for their chaperones to do their best to keep them out of trouble, as he believes they did last week.
“The idea is to ... participate in the march," he said. "You can’t be with students every second, every moment, but it was extremely well organized."
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: The March for Life is a different kind of field trip for schools like Covington Catholic