Calls Grow for Study Abroad Safety, Reporting Improvements
Although the number of students studying abroad has doubled in the last decade, universities are not typically required to disclose deaths that occur overseas.
Some parents and lawmakers are pushing for the Department of Education to take steps to ensure colleges do more to help students studying abroad stay safe.
Requiring schools to collect data on student injuries and deaths while abroad and provide students with information on crime rates in different international locations are two measures advocates have called for.
While the Clery Act requires colleges and universities to report certain crimes that occur on their campuses (including international campuses) and within other areas of Clery geography, schools are not required to report crimes or even student deaths that occur while they are studying abroad if they occur outside of that geography.
Many schools partner with other institutions to offer study abroad programs, which are growing in popularity. In the 2014-2015 academic year, 313,400 American students studied abroad, and the number of students studying abroad has doubled in the last ten years, reports ABC News.
Ros Thackurdeen’s son, Ravi, drowned while studying abroad in Costa Rica in 2012. After his death, she decided to do her own research on deaths while studying abroad.
“What I discovered about study abroad safety was disturbing,” Thackurdeen said. “The numbers of incidents and deaths on study abroad are overwhelming.”
In 2014 alone, Thackurdeen says she discovered 14 student deaths, according to the Daily Iowan.
Other efforts to track study abroad deaths have come to different conclusions, but it is difficult to verify any figure because the information is not freely available in any one place.
The Forum on Education Abroad only reported four student deaths in 2014 after gathering data from two insurance companies that cover half of the study abroad market in the U.S. The report was released in 2016 and concluded that students are more likely to die on a U.S. campus than studying abroad.
While conducting the study, Brian Whalen, head of the Forum, said he attempted to get an exact number of overseas student deaths from the State Department, but was told the information was not available.
At least two states, Virginia and New York, have passed study abroad safety laws in recent years, and U.S. Representative Sean Maloney (D-NY) says he plans to reintroduce the Ravi Thackurdeen Safe Study Abroad Act at the federal level in September.
“Knowing which areas are hotspots for violent crime is important information for kids and parents to know when they’re making decisions on where they’ll study abroad,” Maloney told ABC.
An additional concern for parents is that there are often situations where a student’s university may not be the one to actually oversee the program; many schools use a third-party organizer. Since these independent coordinators are not authorized in giving college credits, they partner with accredited institutions that are oftentimes not the school in which the student is enrolled.
Thackurdeen says the program her son was studying abroad through was purposefully deceptive.
“These universities offer these programs as if it’s theirs,” said Thackurdeen. Her son was studying pre-med at Swarthmore College, but his Costa Rica program was accredited by Duke University.
Thackurdeen sued the program for negligence. Since it was accredited through Duke University, her case is currently pending in North Carolina.
The study abroad industry rakes in $183 billion a year globally.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that “…schools are not required to report crimes or even student deaths that occur while they are studying abroad if they occur off campus.” Clery geography includes some off campus areas.
It also stated that students are not permitted to travel to countries where the Department of State has issued a Travel Warning. Schools have different policies regarding student travel restrictions.