School band defy US officials to appear in London parade

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The Independent Online

An American school marching band that was banned from taking part in London's New Year's Day parade because of fears of a terror attack has finally arrived in the capital after all.

In March, Fort Myers High School Marching Band turned down an invitation to take part in the parade after Florida education officials ruled that pupils would be "safer in America", following the 7 July 2005 terror attacks on London. Herb Wiseman, a high school consultant for Lee County, Florida, warned: "What happens if kids get on a train that blows up? We don't have trains blowing up in America."

But one month later, and following the intervention of Jeb Bush, the Governor of Florida and President George Bush's brother, the Lee County School Board said parents of marching band players could make the decision as to whether their children could travel.

Parents voted overwhelmingly to veto the ban, and the 117 students set about raising £260,000 over six months to fund their journey to the UK. They arrived in London yesterday, and on Monday will lead 10,000 performers through the streets.

Mark Dahlberg, the director of the band, described being in Britain as "a relief". "This is an incredible opportunity, the students are unlikely to have this sort of chance again - to travel to another country, with over 100 of their peers," he said.

Mr Dahlberg said only four band members had visited London before. "It's awesome to see their eyes light up when they see Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and other sights," he said.

Erin Bessette, 17, who plays the trumpet, said: "I'm ecstatic, everything here is so neat, everything's so much older compared to America."

The students had joined with Governor Bush in attempting to overturn the ban; one of them even compared the risk of an attack by al-Qa'ida with being murdered while sleeping.

Mr Bush said: "I wouldn't want to have kids in London that were going to participate in some kind of festivity in Florida be told that it was unsafe. It's a two-way street."

London parade organisers offered to fly Mr Wiseman and James Browder, Lee County's district superintendent of schools, to the capital to reassure them over pupils' safety.

Bob Bone, the parade's executive director, said in March: "Here is an educator that seems to delight in the knowledge that he is ignorant of the facts. London is not a city under siege." Mr Bone pointed out that Fort Myers - a seaside resort visited by 80,000 British tourists a year -had an above-average crime rate and was prone to hurricanes.

"Fort Myers's murder rate is several times higher than that in London and you are three times as likely to be the victim of rape or violent crime," Mr Bone said.