Study-abroad bill would require safety reporting

Brenner (MPR / Alex Friedrich)

A Senate committee has approved a bill requiring colleges to report how safe their study-abroad programs are.

The measure, discussed Thursday, would require schools to provide safety records -- details on deaths, accidents and illnesses of students participating in sanctioned study-abroad programs.

Elizabeth Brenner, the mother of Minnetonka student who died during a 2011 study-abroad trip to India, told lawmakers that study-abroad programs are largely unregulated -- and that many families are unaware of the dangers.

"Three days after [my son] Thomas disappeared," she said, "I learned he was his school's twelfth death. I never imagined I was sending my child on 'secret' study abroad."

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She said families of dead students have exchanged stories of their children's deaths -- and that many are eerily similar:

"Sudden, catastrophic death: falls, drownings, vehicular accidents, untreated health problems, altitude sickness, murder and more."

Campuses would also have to report whether their programs complied with health and safety standards.

Update: The requirements would also apply to programs sponsored by colleges but run through third-party organizations -- such as universities abroad.

The requirements would also apply to programs offered by third-party organizations for which colleges gave academic credit.

(Note: It's unclear to what extent the legislation applies to third-party programs. The bill states that it covers programs "offered or approved for credit by a postsecondary institution." But the bill's author, Senate higher-ed committee Chairwoman Terri Bonoff  (DFL-Minnetonka), said she was checking with legal counsel on that matter. I'll update when we know for sure.)

But the legislation does not explicitly prohibit colleges from giving credit for programs that don't comply. It tells the Office of Higher Education to look into possible ways the state could enforce the requirement.

Senators moved to approve the bill and move it to the Senate floor for a vote.