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Senior Trip: Innocent Fun--or ‘Risky Endeavor’? : Graduation: As students prepare for a last fling with their chums, some parents and administrators say the tropical vacations are just boozy parties.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This summer, high school graduates from all over Ventura County will jet off to Puerto Vallarta, Cancun and other tropical haunts for their traditional “senior class trips.”

Trouble is, some adults say, the teen-agers will travel without school sanction or adult chaperons, and the trips will degenerate into little more than big, boozy parties.

“It’s one big orgy, and there’s enormous pressure on kids to go,” said Jean Ferguson, a Thousand Oaks family therapist.

“It’s almost entirely just partying,” said Ferguson, who forbade her daughter to join her classmates in Mexico three years ago. “Half the parents think it’s a school trip, and I don’t know why. It’s one of the most difficult things for parents to say no to.”

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Many schools forbid travel agents to advertise the trips on campus because administrators refuse to condone them.

“We don’t sanction these trips,” said Tony Diaz, activities director at Oxnard High School. “It’s a risky endeavor. The drinking age is lower, most of the kids go down and let off steam, and, hey, you’ve seen the way some of those spring breaks turn out.”

“We won’t touch those things with a 20-foot pole,” said Keith Wilson, principal at Thousand Oaks High, where seniors are planning a late-June trip to Cancun, Mexico. “They’re just out of hand, with no supervision. They just scare me to death.”

Nonsense, say travel agents, many students and even some parents: The trips are safe and sane.

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The graduates are 18 now, they say--legally adults in the United States and old enough to drink in Mexico.

All this tut-tutting disapproval, they say, is just rank jealousy from adults who never had it so good.

“You get these narrow-minded adults that just think it’s a drunken orgy for a week,” Marc Forman, president of New Horizons Tours in Newbury Park, said with a sigh. “They were teen-agers once--what’s wrong with them?”

This year, graduates from Westlake, Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park, Channel Islands and Camarillo high schools are booking trips to Mexico through his company, Forman said.

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“Yeah, they go out and drink in the bars,” he said. “But they handle themselves.”

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The worst thing that ever happened on a student trip was when two girls on a ski vacation to Vail were briefly jailed for shoplifting a Coke, he said.

In fact, many school officials admit that they have never heard any horror stories from senior class trips.

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“I’ve never heard of anything bad happening,” said David Hess, activities director at Ventura High School. “It just doesn’t mean you want to wait until something does happen.”

Senior class trips became popular among Ventura County graduates in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Travel agencies began touting them to college-bound students across the county--and the country--as the best kind of last fling with their classmates.

Now senior trips are big business, with thousands of graduates from around the United States flocking to Mexico in late June and early July.

That, Simi Valley High senior Carrie Jenkins said, is “the coolest part about the trip. . . . It’s all seniors from all over the United States.”

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Some travel agencies have even enlisted students such as Carrie to recruit traveling companions.

Because she helped sign up 30 classmates for the trip, she said, she will fly round-trip to Puerto Vallarta and stay for a week in a beachfront hotel room--a $369 expense--for free.

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New Horizons Tours sells packages for USA Student Travels, a Sacramento-based company that arranges trips for high school and college students from California, Washington, Nevada, Texas, Florida and Illinois--many of whom hit Mexico at the same time.

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“The kids by and far handle themselves real well,” said John Duby, owner of USA Student Travels. “When the students arrive, we meet them at the airport, we bring them to the hotel and we brief them thoroughly, including behavior and different customs.

“They’re on their own; however, we make them aware of the ground rules that exist,” Duby said. “And if there were problems on tours with drunkenness, the Marriott and the Hyatt and the other five-star hotels wouldn’t work with us.”

Adult supervisors, provided by his agency, “can knock on a door to a room and say, ‘Look guys, you need to cool it because either we can ship you home or you’re going to be bounced from the hotel,’ ” Duby said.

“You say that to a college kid and you don’t know how they’re going to respond,” he added. “You say that to a high school senior, it really has an impact.”

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Those who have taken the trips admit that drinking is a big part of the activity. But nothing, they say, ever got out of hand.

Kevin Smith, Thousand Oaks High class of ’93, said he and three buddies spent a week last year cruising the coast of Mexico on a luxury liner. His parents paid the $730 cruise fee, he said.

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After visiting the Corona beer factory in Puerto Vallarta, the four smuggled a couple of cases aboard to duck the $3.50-a-bottle prices charged at the ship’s bars and drank it at night in their cabin.

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His parents knew that they would drink, he said.

“They knew it (drinking) was going to happen. They just thought I was responsible enough to control myself. . . . But it’s not all about that. When you’re in a foreign place, you kind of hold back and just enjoy it instead of going crazy.”

The only bad experience, he said, was when stormy seas on the trip’s final days took the young men on a queasy detour to seasickness.

Karen Gonzales of Thousand Oaks sent her son to Cancun with classmates in 1991 after he graduated. This year, her daughter is going.

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“Probably my biggest concern is the drinking that I’m sure that will go on,” Gonzales said. “I think most parents are a little apprehensive about their kids going out of the country--about letting go, more than anything. . . . I think they’re responsible enough and, if I didn’t feel she was, she wouldn’t be going.”

For many parents, this is the deepest fear--cutting the apron strings.

Cynthia Clardy’s parents are paying her way as a reward for devoting her senior year to her studies, cheerleading and work as student body president at Camarillo High.

“I don’t plan on doing straight partying when I’m there,” Cynthia said. “I want to do sightseeing and sports, like water skiing. . . . I’m going with three of my closest girlfriends; it’s sort of a bonding thing before we go to college.”

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But her mother admits that she’s a little nervous.

“This is the first time my daughter will go anywhere by herself,” said Connie Clardy, who tries to console herself with the thought that one of her daughter’s classmates has a grandmother in Cancun.

“I’m still thinking about flying there myself,” Clardy said. “I trust her, but the only thing is the people around her.”


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