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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Aruba trip thinking needs explaining

DeWayne Wickham Gannett News Service

What were they thinking?

I’d like to know what was going through the minds of the adults who organized the unofficial high school senior class trip that took Natalee Holloway, 123 of her classmates – and just seven chaperones – to Aruba to celebrate the students’ graduation.

There’s never a good time to ask a question like this when someone’s fate hangs in the balance. But sooner or later, it needs to be asked – and answered. The 18-year-old Holloway, of Mountain Brook, Ala., hasn’t been seen since she left a nightlight club with three men just hours before she was supposed to fly home.

The club, Carlos ‘n Charlie’s, is a legendary Caribbean watering hole where the conga line is continuous and patrons are urged to down 28-ounce drinks and chase them with shots of tequila.

It’s a fun place for tourists in search of a few hours of frenzied drinking and dancing but hardly one that ought to be on the itinerary of a chaperoned high school senior class trip.

While the legal drinking age in Alabama is 21, you have to be only 18 in Aruba to consume alcoholic beverages – an age limit that Aruba On-Line, a Web site that promotes tourism to the windblown island off the coast of Venezuela, says “is not, however, widely enforced.”

I’ve been to Aruba and seen what goes on inside Carlos ‘n Charlie’s. The island is among the safest in the Caribbean, but that doesn’t mean tourists who go there should throw caution to the wind. The bar is great entertainment for adults who are comfortable with loud music, free-flowing liquor and sexually suggestive behavior.

That undoubtedly is what Holloway and the other graduates of Mountain Brook High School encountered during their time in Carlos ‘n Charlie’s. But it makes no sense to send young people to Aruba with chaperones who allow them to go to that bar.

Police have made arrests in connection with Holloway’s disappearance, though it’s still not clear what happened to her. It’s also not clear whether any of the chaperones for the high school students were at the bar with Holloway or saw her leave with the men.

So far, the adults who organized the trip for members of the high school graduating class in Mountain Brook – a tony Birmingham suburb – aren’t talking. Understandably, the focus now is on determining what happened to Holloway and – if foul play was involved – bringing the perpetrators to justice.

But at some point, the people who put this trip together ought to explain what they were thinking. Was it reasonable to expect that things could be kept under control with a student-to-chaperone ratio of nearly 18 to one?

According to the Birmingham News, the chaperones were four male faculty members from Mountain Brook’s high school and middle school and three of the men’s wives. That kind of pairing sounds more like a vacation for the chaperones than something that approaches hall-monitoring duty.

Having completed high school, many of the young adults on this trip probably were old enough to visit Aruba on their own. But many of their parents must have been comforted by the idea that chaperones would be going along. Now some of those parents likely are second-guessing that decision.

Parenting is a tough job. It’s especially hard for single mothers living in poverty in inner cities. But it’s also a challenge for parents in wealthy suburbs like Mountain Brook.

Something all parents should remember is that it’s never safe to send kids on a vacation with adults who are overwhelmed by the number of their charges.

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