By Samantha Dietel, Editor in Chief
Entering the United States was quite stressful for French student Noémie Bontron.
Bontron is one of the 46 students to travel from Annecy, France to the West Bend High Schools as part of the West Bend-Annecy-Cedarburg student exchange. The students arrived in Milwaukee Oct. 14 and departed Friday morning after spending two weeks with their American host families.
While trying to pass through U.S Customs at the airport, Bontron was randomly selected for a security check that separated her from her classmates.
“At the airport, we were just checking the passports and there was a guy who told me ‘go there’ where there was none of my friends,” Bontron said. “I said, ‘No, no, we have a class, we have other students, I’m not alone.’ And he said ‘No, go there.’”
Bontron was confused about what was happening and why she would have to part with her class, since she felt that the Customs employee was not explaining anything to her.
“And everyone just (told) me orders but I didn’t know what I was doing and they just make security check,” Bontron said. “The thing is, I’m not against security check, but you have to tell the people what you’re doing.”
Bontron went on to explain that once she was led to another room, a different Customs staff member told her to remove her shoes. However, Bontron’s unease deepened when she was instructed to take off her shirt.
“I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to take off my shirt,’” Bontron said. “And they just give you orders (for the security check), but it’s a bit aggressive for me because they didn’t tell me anything.”
Bontron was also worried about her plane ticket, which had been given to another airport staff member before she was separated from her classmates.
“They took my plane ticket to be sure that I would do what they want,” Bontron said. “After, they gave me it back and I was so stressing because I was like, ‘What are they going to do with my plane ticket?’”
Luce Georgiau, another Annecy student, says that three of her classmates were chosen for the randomized check, and were thus temporarily separated from the group.
“I was on the defense, I was wondering what are they going to do,” Bontron said. “They have to make sure it’s not everyone with guns who enter (the U.S.) but it feels very aggressive just for one security check.”
West junior Elise Patten, who is Bontron’s host student and pen pal, recognized the stress Bontron experienced.
“I felt bad because if you don’t come into the U.S. a lot, you don’t expect that, so especially if you don’t speak English that well, you’re kind of bewildered by it,” Patten said. “In America, our airport security is really intense compared to Europe because when (the French students) go in between countries, they don’t get checked for anything. But America is so scared of foreign terror that it’s an intimidating experience for a child.”
The Annecy students were also required to pass biometric screening at the airport, which meant that their fingerprints and photographs had to be taken.
“They asked for our fingerprints, so we had to do thumb first and then all our fingers,” said Annecy student Clara Da Silva. “And then they took a picture of us. I think that was old, but in France, we don’t have to do that.”
A group of Annecy students visited West social studies teacher Mark Drake’s Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics class Wednesday to discuss their culture. When Drake heard that the students’ fingerprints were taken upon entering the United States, he expressed interest.
“I was surprised that the French students are engaged with that now coming into the country,” Drake said. “I don’t know how far and all the airports that it has gotten to, but I would say you probably are likely to see this increase as we go on and deal with this issue.”
East French teacher Christi Fischer, who helps organize the exchange, says that one Annecy student had also been unable to make the trip to West Bend due to the strict policies of entering the United States.
“There was a girl who was supposed to come on the trip and she is living in France, but she’s actually from Somalia,” Fischer said. “Somalia is now on the American list of dangerous potential people, so she was supposed to get a special visa.”
Fischer also explained that the student’s process of applying for this travel visa was incomplete by the time the trip rolled around, even though she had begun the process in spring.
“The reason that she needed a lot more time is because she’s a Somalia native living in France,” Fischer said. “Our government is more demanding for documents and proof because they’re afraid that there could be terrorists.”
Besides security during international travel, the Annecy students also noticed differences when it came to school safety.
“Here, you have police officers in the school, police car parking, and we don’t have that in France,” Bontron said. “I’ve never seen a policeman in my high school.”
Considering the current state of U.S. gun control laws, Bontron is concerned that the backpacks of American students are never checked for weapons.
“In the States, you can buy a gun without a license, and when you enter the school, they don’t check your bag,” Bontron said. “So I mean, for example, if I just bought a gun yesterday, I can put it in my bag. When you enter the school, they don’t check if you have a weapon or a knife or a gun in your backpack. I could just have a gun in my bag all day long and bring it at school and no one would check my bag.”
Fischer described that in order to own a gun in France, citizens must have a permit and pay fees.
“It’s kind of expensive, so it does deter the number of guns that people have,” she said.
Da Silva and Georgiau explained that due to recent terrorist attacks in France, their school has them practice “terrorism drills” twice a year. According to Fischer, these lockdown exercises require the students and staff to barricade the doors, turn off the lights, cover any windows and sit in silence under the tables.
The Annecy students must also present their school ID upon entering their school, unlike WBHS students.
“Now (the Annecy students) are restricted to one main entrance to come through and they have two people that are aides in the building that stand there, and the kids have to show their school ID in order to get in,” Fischer said.
Fischer noted that this past week, she saw a news story about a French student who threatened a teacher with a fake handgun. She believes that this has sparked conversation about school safety in France.
“That’s kind of gone viral there and has brought up the debate again about safety in schools and safety for teachers,” Fischer said. “Luckily, it was just a fake gun, but it definitely put people on a little bit of an edge because school shootings are not as common (in France) as they are here.”
(Top image: Annecy student Noémie Bontron, left, and West junior Elise Patten. Photo courtesy of Christi Fischer.)