More oversight sought for student study tours

With the start of the fall academic semester at most U.S. colleges, students are beginning to think about spending the spring semester overseas.

Some will consider Costa Rica for its biodiversity, spectacular beaches and relatively low crime rate. And they probably will pick a program that meshes with their academic studies and provides college credit.

Yet statistics are hard to find so that students and their parents can make a rational choice. They should want to know the experiences of students in specific countries and experiences with selected programs.

There may be as many as 10,000 firms that send U.S. students overseas, and the business is approaching $2 billion a year.

To help the students and parents make an informed decision, a U.S. lawmaker is promoting a bill to require these country and program statistics.

New York congressman Sean Patrick Maloney proposed the Ravi Thackurdeen Safe Students Study Abroad Act. The bill would require institutions of higher education to report crimes that occur while a student is studying abroad, as well as show that they have adopted and implemented a program to protect students participating in an approved study abroad program from crime and harm.

The bill carries the name of  Newburgh, New York, student Ravi Thackurdeen, who died in a water accident in Costa Rica. The Swarthmore University student was here under the auspices of the Organization of Tropical Studies. He was caught in a rip tide while swimming in 2012.

The House of Representatives said in a summary that the bill would require higher educational institutions to provide each student who is interested in participating in an approved study abroad program with a pre-trip orientation session and information regarding the countries in which the programs are located and the incidents and crime statistics there.

The educational institutions also would be required to provide each student who returns from such a study abroad program a post-trip orientation session, including an exit interview.

The lawmaker promoted the bill in a talk at Vassar College earlier this month. The college is in his congressional district.

Like many pieces of legislation, the Democratic lawmaker’s bill might not go anywhere. He is responding to several parents who have been seeking a bill like this for years.

Perhaps the principal proponent of more data for students going oversea is Sheryl Hill, whose son Tyler died while on a student trip to Japan in 2007.  She operates the  ClearCause Foundation that has been promoting better reporting on overseas incidents for years.

Her son died of a medical condition, but she said he did not receive rapid help.

Of the handful of students featured atop the ClearCause Web site, four died in Costa Rica. Only two of the four were victims of water accidents. One, Justin Johnson, was shot by a hotel guard in 2011, and the fourth, Zoe Damon, died in 2011 in a motor vehicle accident.

They represented a tiny fraction of the estimated 315 U.S. citizens who died from violent deaths in Costa Rica from January 2003 to December 2014, based on U.S. State Department data.

Erik L. Downes of Cape Coral, Florida, died in 2011 off a beach south of Dominical. The fourth student featured is young Thackurdeen.

The information on the ClearCause is far from complete. In part, that is because there is no central office where crimes against U.S. students overseas are catalogued. Creating such a system is the goal of the bill.

News files show there have been additional student deaths.

The U.S. State Department receives much of this information, but the government employees there decline to share it. News stories about the deaths of U.S. citizens or crimes involving them come from the police agencies as frequently flawed versions.

The State Department also does not give names of the estimated 315 U.S. citizens who died violent deaths here in the last 12 years. The department Web site claims incorrectly that the names are being withheld based on privacy laws. Death extinguishes privacy concerns. The ClearCause Foundation has filed an appeal to its Freedom of Information Act request for the names of dead students worldwide.

The State Department in the persona of staffers at the U.S. Embassy here do not even announce when U.S. citizens go missing. They also do not report crimes in which U.S. citizens have been victims. So maintaining an accurate list is difficult.

ClearCause, for example, reports that University of Massachusetts at Amherst sanctioned Living Routes for withholding information on a sexual assault in Costa Rica. The female student was studying in Monteverde but went to the beach over a holiday weekend where she was raped.

That case raises another problem with statistics. The student, like many U.S. victims here, declined to file a police report. That data would be picked up in the statistics required by Maloney’s bill.

The foundation would like the U.S. Embassies overseas to take a stronger role in protecting U.S. students.

The foundation also urges parents of any student going overseas to purchase medical insurance that would be valid in the host country.headlines091415

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