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Some Parents Not Crazy About Grad Getaways

The disappearance of a woman in Aruba prompts worries about the safety of graduates as they celebrate with vacations to paradise.

June 18, 2005|Wendy Lee | Times Staff Writer

Minoo Helali fears she won't be able to sleep at night when her daughter heads away for an exotic vacation in Cancun this month as a reward for her high school graduation.

With 17-year-old Monica preparing to leave Taft High in only six days, Helali has been nervously monitoring news reports about missing Alabama teenager Natalee Holloway, who disappeared last month while on a graduation trip to Aruba.

"I am worried because I always was with her, all the time," Helali said. "I always know where she goes, what she is doing."

Yet, despite her concerns, Helali is letting Monica go anyway: "I'm happy for her because I wanted to make her happy and really she deserves it. She really studies hard."

As hundreds of Southern California high school grads prepare to celebrate their independence by hitting the beaches and clubs in Mexico and the Caribbean, the Holloway mystery is causing parents like Helali to have second thoughts about their children's safety.

Holloway, an 18-year-old honors student from Birmingham, had joined 124 classmates and seven adult chaperons on a trip to Aruba organized by a private company. The teen disappeared May 30 after leaving a nightclub with three men. The men were arrested on June 9 but no charges have been filed, and a fourth man was taken into custody on Friday. Authorities, meanwhile, continue to search for the girl.

Doug Schreiber, father of two seniors at Taft High in Woodland Hills, said he too has been disturbed by Holloway's disappearance.

"It's very scary," Schreiber said. "I think [if] they go somewhere with a minimal amount of supervision, yeah, they're 18, but they're still kids."

His twin daughters had no desire to go on the Taft group's graduation trip to Cancun. But even if they had wanted to, Schreiber said he probably would not have let them go.

Officials at two student travel companies that organize graduation trips said this week that they have received more than the usual number of inquiries from parents concerned about supervision. Nevertheless, they said the number of students going on trips to Mexican resorts such as Cancun and Puerto Vallarta and to the Bahamas has generally been on the rise.

Over the past year, SWAT, a Costa Mesa-based student travel company, has seen its grad trips increase from about 900 students to 1,200, with 65% to 70% coming from Southern California, said customer service manager Kahinano Donlin.

Tina Javaherian, an 18-year-old Taft senior, will go to Cancun with classmates five days after graduation and is looking forward to the adventure.

Javaherian said the trip will help the graduates "to grow and explore new things in life so they can learn more about the world."

Schools do not generally sanction such trips. But the word gets out: Some companies recruit high school students to pass information to their classmates, and they are paid with free trips based on the number of packages they sell.

The students from Taft will be traveling with Invasion Tours, a Pleasant Hill, Calif., company.

Invasion officials say they set up travel plans for groups and make their professional staff available 24 hours a day for assistance. The company escorts students from and back to the airport in the destination country and provides daytime and nighttime activities. However, it is up to the groups to find chaperons if they set off on their own.

"We're not going to put these kids on a leash," said Kirk Riley of www.graduationtrips.com, which sells Invasion trips. "These kids want freedom."

Ripley Hunter, chief executive of Invasion Tours, said his company provides an alternative for students who might otherwise travel by themselves. Some students are only months away from going off to college, where they will be treated like adults.

"Because they are adults, they are able to come and go as they please," Hunter said. "This Aruba situation, while it is so tragic, it is not a reflection of the great value of organized student travel. It's important to use common sense at home and abroad."

Helene Apper, a former Taft parent who still co-writes the school's newsletter for parents, has long been critical of such tours. She said she pulled her son out of an Invasion Tours grad trip three years ago, unsatisfied with the company's responses to her questions.

There's "no supervision," Apper said, calling it "basically a drunk-fest for seniors."

But for 18-year-old Michelle Ahoobim, her trip to Puerto Vallarta with Invasion Tours last summer was filled with fun memories of swinging down vines to a beautiful lake, shopping for pearl-colored seashell necklaces and sliding down slippery rocks.

"It was a wonderful, nice vacation with my friends," said Ahoobim, who has since become an Invasion high school representative.

This year, Ahoobim is the organizer for Taft's trip. Invasion Tours expects to take 70 to 80 students to Cancun for seven days, charging them about $1,000 each. She says she has fielded some questions from two parents concerned over what happened to Holloway in Aruba. However, no student has pulled out, she said.

"Parents, they're concerned, but they're not going to not let their kids go on their senior trip because of one incident," she said.

Three seniors interviewed by The Times said whether traveling through Los Angeles or to Mexico, it is ultimately up to each student to be aware of his or her surroundings.

"As long as you're a responsible teen you have nothing to worry about," said Akash Trivedi, who just graduated from Anaheim's Fairmont Prep Academy. "I really believe she [Holloway] just got unlucky. It could happen on a school trip or when you're with your parents or when you get older."

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