University of Iowa
National Outdoor Leadership School
September 22, 2011
Uttarakhand, India

Thomas smiled easily, worked hard, listened well, and hugged often. Growing up, Tom played club hockey for the La Jolla Jaguars (MVP), then varsity for Hopkins High School (Minnesota), and club for University of Iowa. Tom declared himself an economics major at the University of Iowa. He was interested in the environment, sustainable development, and social justice. He imagined a better world beginning with 3-stage composters, which he could build.
Thomas was 20 years old when he left on August 22, 2011 to study abroad in India with National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). One month later, Tom was dead. The following year, NOLS issued their report about the “presumed death of Thomas Plotkin.” The students who had traveled with Thomas began to tell what they knew.
They reported that Thomas suffered a catastrophic fall on September 22, 2011, in the Milam Valley of Uttarakhand, India. Moments before Thomas’ death, he took the lead position on a hiking trail. The ten students hiked a 6-foot wide ledge, over a nearly 300-foot drop, into a Class V river at flood stage. Thomas’ left boot slipped on a wet rock and he landed on his back, momentarily half-on-half-off the trail. His backpack pulled him over the edge and he plunged headfirst into the Gori Ganga River. Four hours later, our family was called. NOLS said, “Thomas has sustained an unsurvivable fall.”
A journalist who covered Thomas’ death for University of Iowa’s newspaper discovered that there was a border patrol less than a mile from the spot where Thomas fell. NOLS did not notify them, claiming their philosophy of “self-sustenance.”
Months after Thomas’ death, NOLS risk management director compiled a report. He remained in his Wyoming office, using source documents our family will not be permitted to see without first signing a “settlement agreement and release.”  The report discounts these factors leading to Thomas’ death: insufficient calorie intake; backpack weight; condition of the trail; weather; fatigue; inexperience of students; absent guides; diminished daylight; lack of equipment for emergency rescue; delayed notification of local authorities (police and U.S Embassy); and condition of the river. NOLS’ report states, “…it was appropriate for NOLS to allow the students to hike on this trail in these conditions on this day with these packs without instructors in the group.” NOLS continues, “Tom understood the risks inherent on this course and chose to participate,” and concludes, “We will use this knowledge to convey to our future students the importance of theiracts and actions.” The Indian Magistry issued its own report stating that it is not prudent to be on the trails during monsoon season.
Our family later learned that our child was NOLS’ 12th death. Thomas’ body was never found.
The study abroad industry has grown exponentially.  It has grown with the financial support of parents who want the best for their children. ClearCause advocates for qualifications, oversight, standards, transparency and accountability in study abroad programs so deaths like Thomas’ can be prevented.
We applaud the University of Iowa for sanctioning NOLS and no longer accepting credits for NOLS programs. Never again should student travel programs be permitted to market themselves without full disclosure. Programs cannot be allowed to investigate themselves after tragic outcomes. Future students and their parents will only be able to make truly informed decisions when all data about study abroad is available.
Elizabeth Brenner, mother of Thomas