After the fall

The first thought Mike Perryman had as he climbed out of bed that Sunday morning nearly two years ago was that it was his son Colt's birthday. His quiet, brainy boy, his first-born son, his hunting buddy and best friend, was turning 15, and for the first time, he would not be celebrating it with his family. Colt was 600 miles away from his Balch Springs home, camping under the stars in the remote, rugged terrain of Big Bend National Park. Colt had slept away from home only once before, not counting visits to relatives, so initially his parents were reluctant to let him go. West Texas was so darn far away, so inaccessible, he might as well have been on the moon.

But Colt had insisted. This was the most popular field trip offered at the Talented and Gifted Magnet, Dallas Independent School District's elite high school, which had invited Colt to apply the year before. Most of Colt's new buddies were going on the trip, so his parents relented. After all, hadn't they needlessly worried when Colt joined the whole school on a mandatory three-day outing to an East Texas ranch early in the school year?

As his wife, Barbara, and younger son, Cain, slept, Perryman padded around the kitchen fixing coffee and breakfast. Not five minutes after he mentally wished his son a happy birthday, the phone rang. A ranger from the National Park Service was on the phone.

"Has anyone told you your son's missing?" the ranger asked Perryman. "He's been missing since yesterday afternoon."

Perryman suddenly felt as if he were underwater, submerged in a sea of questions -- Where? How? Why wasn't he called last night? But there was no time to ask. The former Marine shifted into rescue mode as the ranger told him that the quickest way to get there was to charter a plane to Lajitas, a tiny town 30 minutes from the national park where the rangers would meet him.

Minutes later, teacher Lee Bloomfield, one of the two sponsors on the trip, called. He told Perryman that two students had last seen Colt at 3 p.m. Saturday, sitting on the summit of Emory Peak -- the highest spot in the park -- looking scared.

Perryman was panic-stricken. He quickly located a charter plane and had the pilot pick him up at the private airfield in Mesquite. By 12:20 p.m., they were in the air. Perryman told the pilot of the twin-engine prop plane to "peg it out," but even traveling at top speeds of 160 mph, the flight would take three and a half hours. It felt like an eternity.

During the seemingly endless flight, Perryman finally had a chance to think, and all the questions came flooding back. "This was a school field trip, for heaven's sake. How can my son be missing if he was supervised? How can he be gone for 18 hours and no one have called me? How can no one know what happened? Was there no buddy system? How can this be?"

The questions haunt him to this day. Perryman believes what happened to his son that day was not simply an unforeseeable accident. He believes that what happened was utterly avoidable if only the Dallas school district had a field-trip policy with safety guidelines. But perhaps what's most troubling of all to Perryman is his belief that the district has done nothing to ensure that something like this doesn't happen to someone else's child.

Disneyland High School, a place too good to be true -- that's what the teachers who worked at the Talented and Gifted Magnet called it. It was an honor to be invited to attend the school and equally an honor to teach there.

Housed with five other magnet high schools inside the Townview Center, just south of downtown, the TAG students were known for being super achievers, independent thinkers, and blessedly trouble-free. "We don't have any kid that's not good," TAG art teacher Marsha Evans would tell an investigator after the Big Bend trip. "They're all incredible...It's everything you'd want a high school to be. You know, kids that are responsible, they don't fight..."

The only school in the district with a student body that is evenly ethnically diverse -- one-third Anglo, one-third black, and one-third Hispanic -- it is an uncommonly close-knit group. The kids stick together, which is what led to the problems that dominated the news when the TAG magnet joined five other magnet schools at Townview in 1995.

Created as a self-contained school within Pinkston High in 1982, TAG magnet fostered a unique identity. Students ate all their meals and took all their classes together. When TAG wanted to continue these practices at Townview, County Commissioner John Wiley Price and the new Black Panthers accused the school of being elitist and staged daily demonstrations at the school that lasted for months.