Two Minnesota lawmakers want better reporting of study abroad dangers

Parents send their children off to increasingly popular study abroad programs, but they often don't think about the potential for danger.

A Minnesota foundation for study-abroad safety estimates more than 400 American students -- mostly college students -- have died on such programs over the past 15 years in cases such as drownings, hiking accidents and murders. Hundreds more have contacted the Mound-based ClearCause Foundation after students experienced injuries and sexual assaults, negligent chaperones, and unsafe transportation and housing conditions.

Now two Minnesota lawmakers want to draft legislation that would make programs abroad safer by shedding light on the dangers involved.

State Sen. Terri Bonoff and state Rep. Yvonne Selcer, both DFLers from Minnetonka, say they're looking for a way to require Minnesota colleges and universities to give credit only to study-abroad programs that disclose annually the safety record of their programs. Reports may include supervisory policies and details of any dangerous incidents that have occurred.

They plan to draft legislation this coming session with the urging of the ClearCause Foundation, a nonprofit that is pushing for more safety regulations for American study-abroad programs.

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Selcer (MN House)

"Anything we can do to increase accountability structures would go a long way," Bonoff said. "That’s the first step."

More than a quarter of a million U.S. college students study abroad to earn credit each year -- more than triple the number that did two decades ago, according to the Institute for International Education. 

Many of those students have a safe stay in other countries -- but not all. News media outlets report occasionally on students who die or are badly injured in road accidents, drownings and assaults.

And yet no one really knows how many students encounter problems.

Federal reporting is spotty. Brian Whalen, president of The Forum on Education Abroad on Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, says the study-abroad industry is just now maturing and beginning to collect data.

Just last month the organization launched its Critical Incident Database. But data from its pilot-project is voluntary, covers only 29 member campuses for the 2009-2010 academic year, and is not broken down by specific program.

Hill (via Twitter)

ClearCause Foundation chief Sheryl Hill says her organization hopes to have her database of 400-plus fatalities established in a few weeks.

Two examples of Minnesota students who have died or encountered trouble while on programs abroad:

  • Thomas Plotkin. In 2011, the 20-year-old from Minnetonka was a University of Iowa student who traveled to India with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). During a hike, he slipped and fell more than 250 feet into the Goriganga River. An investigation by The Daily Iowan raised questions about decisions made on the trip and how program leaders handled the search. The investigation prompted the university to review the study-abroad companies it works with. A campus spokesman said the university no longer offers credit for NOLS programs because the school "does not meet the UI’s standards for safety and academic rigor."

Hill says she has assisted 20 families of students who have been killed or injured abroad -- helping with things such as legal referrals, trauma counseling and support groups.

Hill began campaigning for safety regulations on study abroad programs after the 2007 death of her 16-year-old son, Tyler, who was on a People to People Student Ambassador tour of Japan.

According to news reports, Hill says her son died after program leaders didn't respond to her son's requests for medical help after a group climb of Mount Fuji. She also said the program did not notify his parents or a physician when he became ill.

Bonoff said the state should be able to apply leverage to programs that aren't run by Minnesota campuses but which offer credit to students.

"We could say that any college or university that gets any state money -- and almost all of them do -- can’t accept study abroad credits with a program that doesn’t report to state," Bonoff said.

Forum surveys indicate that about half of all study-abroad programs are run solely by colleges and universities, Whalen said. But the other half involve a combination of foreign universities or third-party study-abroad companies.

"For example, you might have a home-campus faculty member from, say, the University of Minnesota, going overseas to teach a course on a program," Whalen said. "It's housed at the University of Paris. But the logistics -- maybe home stays and internships -- are provided by a company."

Bonoff said she and Selcer are still exploring how the reporting would work and are talking with college personnel about the right way to approach it.

The state Office of Higher Education could act as a repository for the data, Bonoff said. She said she'll consult with officials there to determine exactly what data -- such as student-to-supervisor ratios and incidents of crime and accidents -- the programs should make public.

Private colleges could fall under the law, Bonoff said, because they receive students' State Grant financial aid money.

Ultimately, Bonoff said, programs should become safer if they report their crime and accident records, because they'll want to attract students.

"It's going to change behavior, because parents will say, 'I’m not sending them there unless you put them in a place that’s safe.'"

What the legislation probably wouldn't touch, Bonoff said, are programs such as the one Hill's son died on. Many deal with high school students, she said, and don't offer academic credit. And many contact families directly instead of working through schools.

"We've left that as unanswered," she said, "but one that has to be grappled with."