The state of Virginia may soon be holding its higher education study abroad programs more accountable for student safety. It’s all thanks to a new bill in honor of Damion Deshawn Wilkins which just moved unanimously through the Virginia Higher Education Committee, House of Representatives and State Senate. Governor’s Action Deadline is April 11, 2016. The bill requires institutions of higher education to do the following:
- Report all of its study abroad programs approved for credit by the institution
- Report the number of serious accidents, sexual assaults, criminal acts, illnesses or deaths involving the programs’ participants
- Consider the person offering the study abroad program to have “transacted business in the Commonwealth for the purposes of personal jurisdiction.”
In short, when things go wrong during Virginia college and university study abroad programs, it’s their official duty to publicly report it.
If it sounds familiar, it’s because it is. ClearCause advocated for similar transparency rules in 2014 resulting in legislation enacted in Minnesota in honor of Thomas Plotkin who died on a National Outdoor Leadership program in India. Senate File 1975 is now Minnesota law. Study abroad institutions have to report their accident and safety data annually on Nov. 1. The new legislation in Virginia marks the first sister bill to MN SF 1975 and MN SF 1542 (for K-12 in honor of Tyler Hill from Mound, MN), which mandate public safety reporting in Minnesota for colleges, universities and K-12 schools respectively.
That’s excellent news for future generations going abroad. Unfortunately, this progress in Virginia, like the previous push in Minnesota, is coming on the heels of Damion’s tragedy. The bill’s main champion is Richell Dabney, a Virginia veteran and mother. Her son, Damion Wilkins, died of a heart attack in Peru in July of 2014 while he was studying abroad. Wilkins was a junior at Old Dominion University – a biology and psychology major with plans to become a doctor. He was on a jungle hike during a medical education trip when he collapsed. He died before he could be transported to a hospital. His mom may never understand why or how her son perished.
ClearCause founder Sheryl Hill and Richell Dabney connected shortly after Damion’s death. Hill’s 16 year old son, Tyler, died a preventable death in 2007, on a People to People (now called Ambassador Leaders) trip to Japan. These two pushed for corrective legislation in their home states. How many have died? No one knows. More than 300K students reportedly studied abroad, but no safety reporting is required. Many students go without adequate insurance or legal protection or even a duty to inform them of prior accidents, illnesses, injuries or threats to their health and safety. Policy has not kept pace with Globalization. No laws govern the $230+ billion self-regulated student tourism industry.
Dabney collaborated with Hill and worked with Virginia Sen. Kenny Alexander to fight for more legal oversight for study abroad programs in honor of Damion. Senator Alexander sponsored the Damion Wilkins Higher Education Sunshine Bill in the first 2016 legislative session. Minnesota policy makers are working to strengthen Senate File 1975 similarly.
The legislation at work in Minnesota and Virginia are a decent start. ClearCause is pushing harder for more accountability from study abroad programs. A few goals for the future:
- State & Federal Rules to safeguard the well-being of students on academic programs abroad.
- Congress must give authority to departments of the United States to investigate and stop the victimization of American students on programs abroad.
- Students must be informed of the risks and threats to their safety.
- Programs must be held accountable for duty of care.
- Standardized travel safety education for all students going on global adventures – Safe Journey Academy.
- Mandated and enforced standards of best practice.
- ClearCause Seal of Approval.
Please take two minutes to use your voice and send an email to policy makers from the ClearCause advocacy page. Your advocacy will help make sure American students return with rewarding experiences in an industry held to the highest standards.