Student safety fears grow

January 30, 1998

TWO American colleges have cancelled study programmes abroad and others are predicting increased scrutiny after 13 students were robbed at gunpoint and five of them raped in Guatemala.

The students, from St Mary's College in Maryland, were touring an area about which the US State Department had issued travel warnings.

Rose Hayden, a member of the board of the American University in Rome, said the attack, and the publicity surrounding it, "will send a cold shiver down the backbones of anyone involved in sending Americans anywhere".

St Mary's has called off any further foreign travel. Michigan State University cancelled a similar programme to Guatemala, Belize and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Spring Arbor College, also in Michigan, recalled 16 students and two faculty members from Guatemala six days early.

Michigan State geography professor Robert Thomas said: "I'd go to Guatemala tomorrow but I would have concerns about taking students."

Students also are increasingly fearful. Denise Wong, a sophomore at Kenyon College in Ohio, is contemplating whether to study at Oxford. She said security now will be a greater concern, though less for her than for classmates bound for Third World destinations.

"Incidents like this make students more aware," Ms Wong said. "I think we'll be looking out for safety issues more."

International education experts said the Guatemala episode may increase travel to colleges in the countries considered safe.

Thomas Farrell, vice-president for exchange programmes of the Institute for International Education, said: "If there is an impact, programmes in Western Europe and parts of the world perceived in the United States to be more stable and secure will benefit."

More than 89,000 students travelled abroad in the 1995-96 academic year, the latest for which the figures are available, up from fewer than 50,000 in 1985-86. Nearly a quarter went to the United Kingdom and 7,000 apiece to Italy, France and Spain.

Advisers of American students who study abroad have been trying to encourage them to sample other destinations. The number of students who went to Latin America in 1996 rose by 18 per cent over the previous year, in Africa 10 per cent and in Asia 5 per cent.

"We've been doing so much to cultivate travel to the nontraditional recipient countries, and I think this will have a chilling impact on that," Mr Farrell said.

But Anne Thomas, director of international studies at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, said such effects may be short-lived. A briefing about a trip to Chile, Ms Thomas said, attracted 170 students for only ten places at Lehigh only days after the Guatemala incident.

The latest blow to travel abroad programmes follows the alleged 1996 rape of an Earlham College student by her host father in Tokyo. She is suing the college for $3 million.

Also, the families of four American students killed in a bus crash in India in March 1996 are suing the Semester at Sea programme for an undisclosed amount. Both cases are expected to go to trial this year.

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