After the fall

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But by the fall of 1997, though the protests continued, life had calmed down considerably within the confines of Townview and the TAG magnet. In the fall, the school reinstated the traditional trek -- a highlight of the TAG program that contributed to the previous year's controversy -- where the entire student body and faculty bond through academic and recreational activities during a three-day trip to an East Texas ranch.

TAG took learning to the field again after winter break with a weeklong alternative academic course of study called the TAG Interim Term -- or TAG-IT. Students could choose from a number of options, from designing theaters and stages to feminist film criticism. They could study courtroom procedures and the mathematics of architecture and construction.

The five-day camping trip labeled the Great TAG Big Bend Adventure always attracts the largest number of students, and this year was no exception.

An advanced-placement history teacher and among the most popular faculty members at TAG, Lee Bloomfield had been leading groups of students to Big Bend for 14 years, first when he taught at the Edison Environmental Science Academy and then in the eight years he had taught at TAG. He liked introducing adolescents, some of whom had never been out of the inner city before, to the stark, majestic beauty of the Big Bend wilderness. A vast and untamed area of contrasts, Big Bend boasts mountain ranges, desert, and forest. Its southern boundary is the Rio Grande, which cuts deep canyons through the desert along the Mexican border.

The trip is not by any measure easy. After a 12-hour car ride, students spend their days hiking the canyons and trails of the Chisos Mountains and their evenings soaking their feet and cooking out. Though rugged and fun, the trip is also supposed to be educational. On the last night of the trip, students are required to write and perform an original ballad chronicling their experiences in Big Bend. When they return, they are to create a myth, folktale, or legend incorporating their impressions of the area.

Colt Perryman was one of the first students to sign up for the Big Bend adventure. When he first learned about the trip, he came home and excitedly told his parents he wanted to go.

"What, another trip?" was his parents' first thought.

Colt's parents were also concerned when they heard their son would be hiking in the mountains. Colt was afraid of heights and, although he was an avid hunter and fisherman, he had never spent time in terrain such as this. Colt promised his parents he would stay on the established trails and go only where the adults said it was safe. His father even thought the trip might be a good way for Colt to overcome some of his fear of heights.

"We were skittish about the first trip," Perryman says. "We're not overly protective, but we don't take chances. But when he got back from the first trip and he told us all the activities were conducted in groups and it went well, we thought this trip would go the same way."

Preference was given to students whose parents were willing to supervise on the trip. A facilities manager at a semiconductor company, Perryman wanted to go, but he had started a new job 10 months earlier and the timing was not good. He promised Colt that if he liked Big Bend, he would accompany him next year.

The Perrymans paid $80 for the trip, plus another couple of hundred dollars for camping supplies. A week before the departure in January 1998, Perryman and Colt attended a meeting at the school to learn the details of the trip. Bloomfield presented a slide show put to music that featured some of the fun-filled highlights -- a hike to a waterfall, a visit to a Mexican village, and an arduous 14-mile hike that culminated with what Bloomfield described as an assault on Emory Peak. No pictures of the 7,825-foot peak were shown, and Bloomfield left the impression it was simply part of the trail that offered an astounding 360-degree view of the park.

Fifty-one students and nine adults were going, and they would be broken down into seven groups, with one adult for approximately six students. Among the rules: no running or horseplay; never be out of earshot or sight of the responsible adults; do not hike off established trails.

"This trip looked like it was going to be handled right too," Perryman says. "My assumption was that my son was going to be safe. It sounded perfectly safe."

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Ann Zimmerman