Aspen parents: Should students be sent to ‘war zone?’ | SummitDaily.com

Aspen parents: Should students be sent to ‘war zone?’

JOHN COLSON
pitkin county correspondent

ASPEN ” An Aspen parent believes the Aspen school district has been careless in sending local kids on Experiential Education trips to Mexico, in light of a recent rise in violence in areas along the U.S.-Mexico border.

But school officials, including a teacher who sponsored one of the trips in question, countered that all necessary precautions were taken and that the kids were never in danger.

Two Aspen school trips have gone to Mexico recently.

One, sponsored by high school teacher Matt Wells, traveled to the border city of Tijuana to help build school facilities and learn about the culture, meet migrant laborers and other locals.

The other, a group of middle school students under the guidance of teacher Peter Westcott, went to a rural part of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, where they lived with host families and also learned about the society.

The Tijuana group returned to Aspen a week ago, without incident, but while the Aspen contingent was in Mexico there were news reports of a major gun battle involving rival Mexican drug cartels.

According to the news reports, 13 people died in the Tijuana fight on April 27. But one story, in the MercuryNews.com web-based news outlet, described the battle as “just the latest in a spasm of drug-related violence that has gripped the border town this year. In the first four months of 2008 alone, Tijuana has seen dozens of kidnappings, assaults and homicides, including children gunned down in the mayhem.”

Bob Guion, whose son at Aspen Middle School did not go on the Chihuahua trip, said last week that he questions the decision-making of both schools in sending kids into such a troubled region.

“Is it wise to send busloads of school children into what the U.S. State Department calls a war zone?” Guion asked, referring specifically to Tijuana but noting that other border cites have seen increased violence as well.

A story in The New York Times about circumstances in Juarez, the border town through which Westcott’s class trip was to travel, described the conditions there: “A turf war among drug cartels has claimed more than 210 lives in the first three months of this year … At the height of the violence, around Easter, bodies were turning up every morning, at a rate of almost 12 a week.”

The Mexican government sent more than 2,000 troops to the area in late March to help quell the violence.

“I just tried to raise the issue,” said Guion. “Do we have our head in the sand? There’s a border war going on, and it’s inherently unsafe.”

Guion, a local fire fighter, said he grew up in the border lands of the U.S. and Mexico, and has seen his share of corpses in the wake of random violence.

“I honestly would feel safer in front of that wildfire in Carbondale than I would walking around the streets of Juarez or Tijuana,” he said.

But Aspen Superintendent Diana Sirko said the organizers of the Ex-Ed. trips go to great lengths to ensure students’ safety.

“Any trip that a child takes has a certain element of risk,” she pointed out, such as a trip planned for the troubled nation of Uganda next summer, which Sirko stressed is not a school-sponsored trip but has the district’s blessing.

Wells said this week that he coordinated his Tijuana trip with a Southern California tour group that has taken numerous U.S. groups across the border safely.

The organization, Los Ninos, is a non-governmental organization that has been around for 20 years, he said, and has established connections with the schools and larger communities where U.S. student groups go to work. The Aspen students stayed in a house owned by Los Ninos in a middle-class neighborhood, traveled in groups in school buses, and stayed away from the high-volume tourist zone known as El Centro.

“It’s not like we have a big neon sign [saying], ‘Group of Americans Here,'” Wells said, adding that there is no advance publicity about the Aspen delegation, and no way potential kidnappers or criminals would know about them.

He also said that Los Ninos representatives, in talks about security issues, felt that the presence of armed guards or other overt signs of security were not only not necessary, but might attract unwanted attention.

Wells, for whom this was the second Tijuana trip, noted that Ex-Ed. trips also go to U.S. cities where violence is a part of daily life.

“Would the concerns be as high if I were taking the kids to, say, Chicago?” he asked, noting that recent civic unrest in that city has left several dead.


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