Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Al Franken (D-MN) and Robert Casey (D-PA) released a letter today to the U.S. Department of Education urging the adoption of enhanced safety guidelines for students studying abroad. The request comes after Senator Gillibrand was contacted by a Newburgh, New York family whose son, Ravi Thackurdeen, a sophomore pre-medical student at Swarthmore College, drowned while studying abroad in Costa Rica in 2012. Thackurdeen was participating in Duke University’s Global Health Program and drowned on a program-sponsored excursion to a beach known to have dangerous currents and where no lifeguard was present. Study abroad programs are largely unregulated and may even allow students to remain in countries where the U.S. State Department has active travel warnings or has evacuated the families of U.S. embassy staff. The number of American students who die each year during study abroad programs is tracked by the ClearCause Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Sheryl Hill, whose son died while studying abroad in Japan in 2007. An analysis of recent news reports by the ClearCause Foundation indicates that at least 10 American students died while studying abroad over the past six months.
In the letter led by Senator Gillibrand, the Senators urged Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, to create enhanced safety guidelines for students and to implement a procedure for notifying families of safety concerns that exist in countries students plan to visit. The Senators also pushed the Department of Education to encourage students who study abroad, to enroll in the U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which provides critical travel information and issues country-specific travel warnings.
“Studying abroad is such a rich experience and can have a significant and positive impact on a young person’s life,” said Senator Gillibrand. “But no parent or child should be in the dark about the safety concerns that exist in the foreign country where they plan to study. Our students and parents deserve to be better informed and should be educated about existing concerns as well as what options exist when an emergency occurs while studying abroad. There must be better oversight of these programs for our students. We hope the Department of Education will swiftly review and implement these common sense recommendations to keep students safe.”
“Students from across Minnesota study abroad to enhance their education and learn about other cultures, but they shouldn’t have to risk their safety to do so,” said Senator Franken. “I’m pushing the Department of Education to work with the State Department to do everything they can to ensure students have all the information they need to stay safe when they go abroad to study.”
“Safety is a necessary prerequisite to a student’s ability to learn, both at home and abroad. As more and more students choose to study abroad as part of K-12 and postsecondary education, it is increasingly critical that students and families have an adequate understanding of possible risks and necessary precautions,” said Senator Robert Casey. “Increased information and transparency will empower students and families to make informed choices and help U.S.-based institutions and programs to create safe, rewarding educational experiences for students who participate in study-abroad.”
“Ravi epitomized the true meaning of well-being, wisdom, ability to wonder and to give back,” said the family of Ravi Thackurdeen. “Caring, warm, compassionate, he showed everyone around him that learning is not about doing the right things in school to get the right job to achieve some socially constructed idea of success. It’s about seeing all the beauty that life has to offer, in its many forms. We have gravely lost out. I want to make sure no other family ever feels our pain. Senators Gillibrand, Casey and Franken, thank you for being parents first, for understanding the need to protect our children, our future, Americas’ future.”
More than 280,000 post-secondary students from the United States studied abroad for academic credit in 2012, the highest annual rate of post-secondary American students studying abroad to date. Many American students in middle school and high school also travel abroad as part of their studies, but data on the number of students who do so is severely limited. According to an analysis of news reports by the ClearCause Foundation, more than 400 American students have died while on study abroad programs in the past 15 years. In addition, a 2012 report published in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy indicated that study abroad increases the risk for sexual assault among female undergraduates.
Study abroad programs can be school or faculty sponsored, or privately operated, by outside organizations. Guidelines for the safety and protection of students vary greatly among various programs. Some study abroad programs may even allow students to remain in countries where the State Department has active travel warnings or has evacuated the family members of American embassy staff, due to concerns about safety or security.
In their letter to the Department of Education, the Senators wrote, “We must ensure that our students and their families have relevant information about safety concerns to inform their decisions about where to study and what to do when dangerous circumstances arise. Further, we must have clear safety guidelines for study abroad programs, especially in countries where the U.S. Department of State has active warnings and where U.S. Fulbright Program participants are not permitted to remain….We urge you to take steps to ensure that K-12 and postsecondary education institutions whose students participate in study abroad programs are informing their students about safety and security concerns related to studying abroad, and providing oversight to the programs and locations where their students are studying.”
The Senators recommended four specific actions to enhance safety measures for K-12 and post-secondary school study abroad programs which include:
· Developing a mechanism within the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to enable students to sign up for the STEP program;
· Directing K-12 and post-secondary institutions to encourage students to sign up for the STEP program;
· Providing timely information on the U.S. Department of Education website about safety concerns that exist while students are studying abroad; and
· Developing guidelines for K-12 and post-secondary institutions that ensure study abroad programs have the same safety guidelines and procedures as U.S. State Department sponsored programs.
Full text of the letter to the Secretary of Education is attached.