Did Discovery Tours break any laws and is there anything school leaders can do to protect families in the future from losing hundreds of dollars on long-distance, out-of-state field trips booked through touring companies?
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, is turning to the Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio for an answer to the first part of that question. Brown said Thursday that he wrote to both the FTC and U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman requesting investigations into Discovery Tours, a business that arranged tours for Ohio students to see sights in Michigan, Illinois and Washington, D.C., that is now seeking bankruptcy.
Brown said the FTC and DOJ should determine whether Discovery Tours broke any laws and ensure there are proper consequences for the company.
“Beyond the disturbing reality that hundreds of students will likely miss long-awaited school trips is the fact that a company allegedly received hundreds of thousands of dollars — and possibly millions — from Ohio families for services that the company will not provide,” Brown said. “And the company has failed to provide any information as to when or if the money it received will be returned to those hardworking men and women. This is unacceptable, and the affected school districts, parents, and students deserve answers as to what happened to their money.”
Among the dozens of affected school districts, Elyria, Oberlin and Vermilion lost thousands to Discovery Tours.
After its trip through Discovery Tours was canceled, Elyria Schools chose to fund Northwood Middle School’s trip at a cost of almost $45,000 and plans to seek restitution through legal channels. District spokeswoman Amy Higgins said earlier this week that the district did not want the 85 students to miss out on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
It’s hard to say what, if anything, districts could have done to prevent the loss of so much money. Discovery Tours had a more than 35-year record of providing trips and always upheld its end of the contract of coordinating and reserving the trip from pick-up to drop-off.
“When we first heard the news about a trip being canceled for Mentor Schools, we thought it was an issue with the hotel, because we have that good of a relationship with Discovery Tours,” Higgins said. “We never imagined it would be a widespread problem.”
Higgins said it is typically policy for individual schools to set up field trips and contract with touring companies. Northwood used Discovery Tours for its annual eighth-grade treks to Washington, D.C., but Eastern Heights and Westwood middle schools did not, according to Higgins.
Keystone Superintendent Franco Gallo said the district never had similar problems with field trips, but the Discovery Tours situation has raised some concerns. The district uses Nowak Tours out of Valley City.
“We haven’t yet, but it is something we will consider moving forward,” Gallo said when asked it there have been any discussions to implement new policies and procedures to safeguard future trips.
Avon Superintendent Mike Laub said the Discovery Tours situation won’t result in immediate changes.
“There is never a 100 percent way to protect against every scenario,” he said. “I think we have procedures in place that help protect us to the extent we can.”
In his letter, Brown calls for an investigation into Discovery Tours’ actions as well as payments it received for trips that it canceled. The Ohio Attorney General’s Office, as well as two county prosecutor’s offices, also are investigating Discovery Tours.