Milwaukee Public Schools made an announcement on Dec. 7, 2015. The district was canceling their international student trips for the rest of the year, as well as a trip to Washington, D.C. They’re not alone. Schools around the country and the world are deciding that travel is too risky for students and canceling their trips in the wake of back-to-back terrorist attacks.

Safety is a serious issue, so it’s natural for families and students to have concerns and questions:

Is the world more dangerous?

Milwaukee Public Schools made their decision to cancel their trips based on a worldwide travel alert issued by the United States Department of State on Nov. 23, 2015:

“Authorities believe the likelihood of terror attacks will continue as members of ISIL/Da’esh return from Syria and Iraq. Additionally, there is a continuing threat from unaffiliated persons planning attacks inspired by major terrorist organizations but conducted on an individual basis.  Extremists have targeted large sporting events, theatres, open markets, and aviation services.  In the past year, there have been multiple attacks in France, Nigeria, Denmark, Turkey, and Mali.  ISIL/Da’esh has claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Russian airliner in Egypt.”

Schools in the United States aren’t the only ones that are worried by the attacks. The Edmonton Catholic School District in Canada recently canceled 20 trips this year in light of the tragedies in Paris and California.

Many school districts in the Tri-State Area in New York had already canceled their trips three days before the Department of State issued their travel warning.

The level of caution is definitely rising in correlation to terrorism and civil unrest.  

What does a travel “alert” mean?

The Department of State issues two kinds of country wide cautions for travelers: Alerts and Warnings.

Travel “Alerts” are short-term cautions against risky situations, like an outbreak of H1N1, strikes, even terrorism. The alert is active until the USDOS cancels it.  Google Defines alert, “Quick to notice any unusual and potentially dangerous or difficult circumstances; vigilant.; the state of being watchful for possible danger; warn (someone) of a danger, threat, or problem, typically with the intention of having it avoided or dealt with.”

Travel “Warnings” are for countries the Department of State deems dangerous enough for you to “consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all.” They also give examples of the types of activities that trigger a warning:  unstable government, civil war, ongoing intense crime or violence, or frequent terrorist attacks. Because some of these activities go on for years, so do some travel warnings.

If a traveler plans to continue with their travel plans in spite of an active alert, the Department of State recommends the following to minimize risk:


  • Follow the instructions of local authorities. Monitor media and local information sources and factor updated information into personal travel plans and activities.
  • Be prepared for additional security screening and unexpected disruptions.
  • Stay in touch with your family members and ensure they know how to reach you in the event of an emergency.
  • Register in their Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).

To Travel or Not to Travel

Traveling abroad is an exciting enticement – until the excitement is more than you bargain for. In spite of Department of State warnings, U.S. universities and colleges will send students into countries where the USDOS has active travel warnings with prior approval and signed waivers.  Make sure you have legal review those waivers – don’t sign your life away.

Be aware and beware, no federal policy safeguards the well-being of American students on school sponsored trips abroad – no federal office scrutinizes K-12 or Higher Education study abroad programs.  

Traveling remains an invaluable window to a diverse world, and an effective tool for broadening minds. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of visiting another country and discount alerts and warnings.  We all have a certain sense of personal invincibility and never count on something bad happening to us.  Safety is paramount, however, especially when it comes to the lives of young people. No one governs academics abroad, and if students go abroad during a travel alert, their safety isn’t guaranteed.

Our Cause

Help us make travel safer and more accountable by asking your policy makers for protective laws.  In particular, shouldn’t academic institutions operating on taxpayer dollars be required to follow recommendations from the Department of State? Shouldn’t study abroad programs have mandated duty of care and duty to inform parents and students of risks to their health and well being?
There is more to be done to make sure young people come home safely.  Your financial support helps Depart Smart achieve its mission to save lives and protect students abroad. PLEASE GIVE.