Twelve buses filled with Howard County high school students and bound for Canada on a ski trip were detained for up to eight hours at the border last week during a search by Canadian officials that turned up dozens of fake IDs, marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms and drug paraphernalia, according to the trip organizer, parents and some of the children.
Although not a sanctioned school event, it was another embarrassment for Howard students and school system after a string of incidents since August that included 12 teen-agers being cited for underage drinking at a dance; two girls making national headlines with a kiss; allegations of improper grade changing by top education officials; and a high school forfeiting its games because of ineligible players in various sports.
Canadian border authorities confiscated 46 fakes IDs, 3 ounces of marijuana and a small quantity of illegal mushrooms, said Daniel M. Callahan, director of Springfield, Va.-based Ski Travel Unlimited, which has conducted ski trips since 1981.
"I would say it's the worst border crossing we ever had," Callahan said last night in a telephone interview. "And it's certainly the worst in terms of the 46 fake IDs that were confiscated. We never had anything like that before."
Callahan said that none of the 592 students heading to Canada - the vast majority of them from Howard - was arrested, although his staff members urged the authorities to arrest some and have their parents deal with the consequences while the buses took the rest to their destination in Quebec.
Canadian authorities could not be reached for comment.
Callahan said that students and parents had signed agreements that made them aware of stiff penalties - such as expulsions - that would result from drug or alcohol violations. Chaperones warned students about carrying drugs and alcohol before they got on buses, and looked inside their luggage and carry-ons, Callahan said. Thirty-one staff members were on the buses, he said.
"It's impossible for us to find tiny Baggies of drugs," Callahan said. "Most of these kids put them in their underwear or in their bra. We can't conduct a full-body strip search for kids coming on our ski trip."
The buses left Thursday afternoon from two sites in Columbia and were supposed to arrive early Friday after an all-night journey. Students, who had a scheduled day off Friday, were supposed to have all of that day, and the weekend, to ski at Mount Tremblant.
But things did not go all that smoothly from the beginning of the trip that cost $389 per student for lodging, travel, and three days of skiing. Before the buses left Howard County on Thursday afternoon, two students were kicked off the trip: one for carrying brass knuckles and another for smelling of alcohol, Callahan said.
The buses started arriving at the Canadian border about 4 a.m. From the border, it's 2 1/2 hours to the mountain, he said. But the caravan was hung up at the border. Some buses made it to the mountain two hours behind schedule, while others didn't arrive until the afternoon, Callahan said.
Jocelyn Swarm, a Glenelg High School senior, said students were held at customs for seven hours, starting in the early morning - with no explanation - while agents searched the 12 buses, each of which carried about 50 students.
"We had no idea what was going on," she said, until about 10 a.m., when a company representative told the teens that random searches on the first bus to reach the border had revealed drugs.
Officers then asked students on the second bus to hand over any contraband, which some did, but not all: Agents found more drugs, along with fake identification cards, and that's when they "just went ballistic," launching a full-scale hunt among the buses, said Jerry Bialecki, Howard High School's PTA president.
Bialecki's two daughters - a sophomore and a junior - went on the trip, and he said he would let them go again.
"Is this any different than a day at Howard? I know there's drugs, I know this stuff is all around," said Bialecki. "Kids and the parents have got to take full responsibility. The company told the kids that this stuff must not go on, period," Bialecki said.
Assistant Superintendent Roger L. Plunkett said he had "no idea" there had been a ski trip organized until Friday. On Thursday, however, he said he had sent an e-mail to Howard high school principals informing them that the ski company was organizing a trip, but he did not have details on a specific one.
Plunkett said in the e-mail that the school system does not endorse ski trips, and could assume no liability for them.
The students returned yesterday morning.