US institutions pressed to disclose overseas deaths

Activists want universities to report if study-abroad students are killed, injured or victims of a crime

January 1, 2015

Source: Getty

Dangerous currents: some study-abroad organisers were slow to inform parents that their children had been hurt

A campaign by determined activists, including the parents of American students who have died abroad, is subjecting US education programmes – and, by extension, their overseas partners – to increased regulation and reporting requirements.

A proposal in Congress would compel universities to disclose whether students in study-abroad programmes were injured or killed, or were the victims of a crime, even if it was not on property the universities own or rent. It would also require a review of such programmes’ health and safety records every two years.

One state, Minnesota, has already passed legislation requiring universities there to publicly report any deaths or injuries of US students abroad. New York State is considering a similar law. Those two states alone are home to nearly 500 universities.

Federal law in the US already obliges universities to report safety issues that occur in overseas facilities that they own, rent or otherwise control, just as they are required to do for their domestic campuses. But that does not cover anything that happens outside the walls of such sites. Nor does it apply to third-party providers, including host families.

“We would never allow our kids to get into a car without a driver’s licence, insurance, a safety inspection and emergency contacts, but we will toss our kids on to a plane and send them to another country because we trust our schools,” said Sheryl Hill, who founded the advocacy organisation ClearCause to push for more regulation after her son Tyler died of altitude sickness on Mount Fuji during a study-abroad trip to Japan.

Yet parents whose children have been injured or killed abroad have told her that they did not immediately hear about it from the trip’s organisers. Some have learned that the risks were known but that the universities never disclosed them.

“They are shocked that their school that they paid tens of thousands of dollars to never told them about the dark side of study abroad,” Ms Hill said.

Outbound traffic is slowing

The increased scrutiny comes amid a push to increase the number of Americans who study abroad, which has been levelling off. New figures from the Institute of International Education show that 289,408 American students studied abroad for academic credit last year, a 2 per cent increase on 2013. That is, however, a slower rate of growth than the previous year.

US universities are already working to improve the reporting of their health and safety records overseas, said Natalie Mello, vice-president of member services and training at the Forum on Education Abroad, a non-profit association of study-abroad programmes. She said that the body is developing a database for 50 participating institutions to track such problems.

ClearCause also collects the stories of US students who have died abroad: a 20-year-old caught in a riptide and drowned while on an ecotourism education trip to Costa Rica; a 21-year-old who died in a bus crash in India; a 21-year-old killed in a street protest in Egypt; a 20-year-old who died in a fall while on a hike in India.

University students at these ages “are not yet adults in the full sense of the word”, Ms Hill said. “They are coming into adulthood. Our goal is to make sure they arrive.”

Ms Mello said that the growing attention to the injuries and deaths of US students overseas has come precisely because universities are doing a better job of reporting them – not because the number of such incidents has necessarily increased.

“That’s one of the things that has been a bit frustrating,” she said.

Just back from a fact-finding trip to the Republic of Ireland, Ms Mello also said that the tangle of agreements among US and international partners – which are not subject to US law – vastly complicates the process of tracking students’ injuries or deaths when they are outside the US.

“The intent is laudable,” she said. “But how are we going to figure this out so that people in Ireland or other countries are not violating their own laws by reporting incidents that might happen to students?”

Ms Hill argued that even study-abroad programmes not under the control of US universities should voluntarily provide safety and health information, whether or not the law is changed. “If you’re a European school,” she said, “this is my challenge to you: don’t wait for it. Start determining what you can do now.”

She said she remains an enthusiastic advocate of international education. She just wants it to be safer.

“I’m the mother of a dead boy, and I should have the right to question the safety of study abroad,” Ms Hill said. “I want to honour my son to make sure that everyone comes back with a really rewarding experience.”

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