District 64 school board

Board members of the Park Ridge-Niles District 64 go over task force options at a recent meeting. (Bob Chiarito, for the Chicago Tribune / March 9, 2014)

Fifth graders in Park Ridge-Niles District 64 will keep spending nights at Camp Duncan as part of an outdoor education program, the school board voted recently in a rejection of a task force's recommendation that the stays be scrapped for safety reasons.

Even though board members sided with the majority of parents who said in a survey that the overnights were "essential," they urged the task force to continue to improve the program and reduce the district's potential liability.

The program, which began in 1995 and has been held at Camp Duncan in Ingleside since 2010, exposes 5th graders over two nights and two-and-a-half days to activities that highlight environmental awareness, team building, problem solving and cooperative learning.

In November, an Outdoor Education Task Force was created to address growing safety concerns about the overnight component. In January, the group recommended that the overnights end, citing privacy and safety considerations for special-needs students and inconsistency in the way the chaperones set rules for students.

Students sleep in cabins of 16 to 22 students and are supervised by two parents who have undergone criminal background checks and training.

That recommendation came despite the task force's survey that found 70 percent of responding parents believed the overnights to be very important. Fifteen percent said they should be eliminated, and 13 percent said they were not critical to the program. Two percent said they did not know enough to provide feedback.

Parent supporters dominated the public comment section of the board's Feb. 10 meeting and got organized via social media with a Facebook group "Save Camp Duncan for D64" which had more than 400 followers.

At last week's meeting, Lori Hinton, assistant superintendent for student learning, who headed the task force, told board members that "parents expect safety and we're not comfortable that we consistently provide that level of safety."

The task force presented seven options for addressing supervision and safety concerns, including having certified staff supervise students during the overnight component, recruiting additional parent chaperones, providing additional training for parent chaperones and recruiting nursing stuff to create two shifts for health support. In the end, none of the options swayed board members enough to alter the program.

Hinton said that the task force stood by its recommendation.

"If there was a way we could keep the overnight program, we would have found it," Hinton said. "That was our bias because we wanted to keep it for the kids."

Superintendent Philip Bender, who is not a voting member of the school board, said despite the fact that he helped approve an overnight outdoor education program at the district he worked at previously, he supported the task force's recommendation.

"I have to protect kids, that's my job," Bender said. "There's too much liability."

Board member John Heyde, who said he spent time as a youth at summer camps, applauded the task force for making what he described as a well thought-out recommendation, but one that he did not agree with.

"I think we have an excellent recommendation. I know it's not easy to recommend something that the majority of parents disagree with," Heyde said. "There's no way to eliminate all risk. I think the reward is worth the risk."

Board President Anthony Borrelli urged the administration to shore up the district's agreement with Camp Duncan and update consent agreements.

triblocaltips@tribune.com