It has become an annual tradition for Howard County high school students: a ski trip to Mount Tremblant, Canada, over a long weekend in February.
But in recent years, the event has caused concern among school officials and some parents, who say they have heard stories of poor adult supervision, underage drinking and misbehaving students.
Those fears became a reality for some parents last winter when hundreds of students were detained at the Canadian border during a search that turned up dozens of fake IDs, marijuana, hallucinogenic mushrooms and drug paraphernalia. No students were charged in that incident.
This year, as in the past two years, school administrators are making sure that parents know that the ski trip, scheduled for Feb. 10-14, is not sponsored by the school system.
A note that the school district does not endorse ski trips was sent to high school principals at the beginning of the school year, said Assistant Superintendent Roger L. Plunkett. The notice, in turn, has appeared in numerous Parent-Teacher-Student Association newsletters, and also on Wilde Lake High School's Web site as a "ski trip warning."
It reads in part: "In many cases, there has been no adult supervision on the trips during previous years. Moreover, the company often misleads parents into believing that the ski trips are sponsored by the school system."
The notice continues: "Please be advised that the Howard County public school system does not sponsor or endorse any ski trips. Therefore, we assume no liability."
Said Plunkett: "It's a matter of parents understanding our field trip procedures. We don't sponsor ski trips. We want our trips directly related to the curriculum."
The man at the center of the storm is Daniel M. Callahan, director of Springfield, Va.-based Ski Travel Unlimited, which is named in the note distributed by Howard school administrators.
Callahan said he started the company in 1981, when school systems stopped sponsoring ski trips. Since then, the company has taken 50,000 students from the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area, including Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, on ski trips to Quebec.
His business in Howard County started when Wilde Lake parents and students approached him 10 years ago to organize trips here, Callahan said.
Now, he said, Ski Travel Unlimited is getting a bum reputation in the county, fueled by misconceptions and misinformation.
Callahan disputed the Howard school system's characterizations:
The trips, he said, are supervised by adult chaperones -- one for every 12 to 15 students -- who are, on average, 38 years old.
Sign-up sheets, signed by parents and students, state that ski trips are not sponsored or affiliated with any high school, he said.
Students and parents sign agreements that spell out rules against alcohol consumption, drug use and fake IDs, and make clear there will be stiff penalties -- including expulsion -- for violations, he said. The agreement also allows Ski Travel staff and chaperones to search student rooms and luggage before departure and during the trip.
"We do everything possible to make sure we have a safe, enjoyable trip for all people attending," said Callahan, a father of 10. "Obviously, what we would prefer is to have good kids who follow the rules we've given them, and if they did that we wouldn't be having this conversation. You would never have any problems.
"What the school systems like to do, they'd like to pass it along as a problem with the ski trip," he said. "That's not the problem. The problem is the behavior of the individual student."
Matthew Radhe, 17, a senior at Hammond High School and an avid snowboarder, agrees.
"Parents don't understand that when kids want to party, they're going to party," said Radhe, who has gone on two previous Ski Travel-sponsored trips and now recruits his peers. "It's not Ski Travel's fault. It's the individual's fault. Parents want to find a scapegoat."
Callahan said he is stepping up enforcement for the trip involving Howard students. In a recent letter to parents, he outlined several items, including a zero-tolerance policy for violations and increased scrutiny of luggage.
The ski trip costs $419 per student for lodging, travel and three days of skiing. Student representatives recruit other students and receive discounts for every person signed up. In Howard County, it is against school policy for students to recruit or pass out fliers on school grounds, which Ski Travel also discourages, Callahan said.
For the first time, David Bourgin, 17, a senior at Hammond High, plans to go on the trip -- which leaves from Columbia the afternoon of Feb. 10 and returns at 5 a.m. Feb. 14.
"It's a chance to get away from school and have fun with friends and learn to ski," said Bourgin, adding that his parents trust him.
Several parents said they heard stories from other parents and students that there was a lack of supervision on these trips, though they did not have firsthand knowledge.
Angela Ballard-Landers, president of River Hill High School's PTSA, asked Principal William Ryan to include a note about the coming ski trip in his letter to parents, which was distributed Thursday after they flooded an e-mail listserv with questions.
"It's not any way in any shape or fashion to discredit the company," said Ballard-Landers, who is not sending her son on the trip. "It's a parental decision. Even if it was sanctioned by the school, it's a parental decision."
Karin Radhe, Matthew's mother, said the ski trip got a bad reputation because of the border incident. Both Matthew and her oldest son, Eric, who graduated in June, went on the ski trip last February.
At the same time, she said, "I have mixed feelings. I know my kids are good kids, and I know I trust them. You can't speak for all the kids who go on the trip."
Sun Staff writers Liz Kay and Audrey Goldberg contributed to this article.