Just sign on the dotted line

When my son joined his high school orchestra last fall, he learned that the group would go on tour to Washington, D.C., during spring break. As the time drew closer, we waxed enthusiastic about the prospect of his hitting the road with friends, seeing some sights, and performing for adoring fans (some doubling as family members).

Then came the "permission" slip.

It seemed the school was equally excited about the tour - pending my willingness not to hold it legally responsible for anything - anything - that transpired on the trip.

I'm a veteran of permission-slip argot, but this form stopped my pen in mid-uncapping.

The possibilities leaped into mind: being left behind in Lafayette Park after dark. Permission to roam the city alone during free time. No food or drink for days.

Remember the episode of "The Simpsons" where, as the school bus bursts into flames, Principal Skinner hugs the permission forms and exults that parents have already signed them?

It's unclear how binding these forms really are (story, right). But many schools are choosing to adopt their strident message: Sure, take advantage of the opportunities we offer (and use as a selling point). But proceed at your own risk.

In my case, an e-mail exchange with the very forthcoming orchestra director cleared up any concerns. But these forms hardly qualify as confidence-building measures in the cautious dance between school and parent. Schools could surely find a better way to protect themselves from unreasonable lawsuits while still assuring parents that their main concern - educating and caring for students with whom they've been entrusted - hasn't changed.

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