Beau Solomon’s death a few weeks ago opened the floodgates of a wave of reactions, most of them outrage and empathy. A Newsweek article recorded a different kind of reaction from Brian Whalen, the president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad. His point: Solomon’s death was truly unfortunate, but these things don’t happen all that often. “This is obviously a very tragic occurrence, but one that is relatively rare in study abroad,” Whalen said.

The article reports Whalen said students are less likely to die abroad than on university campuses in the United States. Data reported by the Forum on Education reflect the 2014 mortality rate for students at home as 29.4 per 100,000 students. The mortality rate for students abroad is 13.5 per 100,000 students.

“This conclusion is based on a comparison of mortality rates which demonstrates that students enrolled on U.S. campuses are more than twice as likely to die as students studying abroad,” the report states.

The temptation here is the write off studying abroad as less dangerous than US college campuses. If students die abroad less often than they die stateside, why worry too much about study abroad programs?

For Depart Smart, it is an incredulous comparison. To us, what is actually being portrayed is a serous student safety problem at home and abroad. By comparison, the United Nations identified 15 deaths per 100,000 as high in 2012.  

A student death or injury in any setting is, as Whalen put it, a tragedy. However, students who are killed abroad, and their families, face a whole different world of hurt and challenges making it ten times worse.

  1. Language barrier – Emergency situations compound  when families cannot speak directly with medical teams or law enforcement.
  2. Murky laws – Legal issues get complicated abroad. Parents need powers of attorney for HIPAA and FERPA releases to demand information from their child’s school. Victims and survivors may not know the laws or their rights.  Reporting crime in some countries can get a person tossed in jail, guilty until proven innocent.  Remember Amanda Knox? Access to good legal counsel in foreign countries is problematic.
  3. No support system – Parents can be an ocean away when their son or daughter is hurt, ill or killed abroad. Students, and parents on bedside assistance, have very little to no emotional support as they face one of their worst nightmares.
  4. No emergency exit – Bringing a critically injured student home for care can cost upwards of $50,000. Many students are not adequately insured.
  5. Evidence – Universities are often advised to stop speaking to parents to protect theri institute. Parents of students who die abroad may never find out what happened.  There is no mandated duty to inform.
  6. Justice – Is denied.  Parents of students attending state universities cannot bring a civil lawsuit agains them.  They are sovereign, with immunity.  The federal government does not watchdog what they do.
  7. Punishment – Students have been threatened and punished for reporting harm, some students have been told they won’t graduate if they keep talking.  A University of Wisconsin River Falls student is pushing for Title IX to apply to study abroad after she reported sexual assault and was placed on academic probation, forced to go to anger management and forfeit her tuition and credits.

Departments of the United States state they do not have the authority to stop the victimization of students abroad.  It will take public outcry and congressional approval to change that.  Until then, no federal office is policing what the Forum on Education Abroad or any university does that is harmful to students. Here’s an example: the Dean of Florida International University was accused of drugging and raping a student on a program abroad.  His consequences?  He lost his job. He’d be arrested if that happened here.

Students studying abroad face different dangers and need different resources to stay safe. They deserve even more support than students studying at home.  
Depart Smart is working to develop the first consumer driven travel safety training to so people, especially students, can identify and mitigate risks, advocate for themselves, get help and home safely.  $50 can save a life. You can Pre-register for the course here.