The prevalence of U.S. college and university study abroad programs has grown precipitously in recent years. there were 283,332 U.S. college and university students who studied abroad for credit in 2011-12, more than triple the number two decades ago. Foreign study experiences present incredible opportunities to foster growth, cultural awareness, self-sufficiency, maturity, and friendships. Yet they also generate potential risks to student safety and adjoining institutional liability.

In an effort to protect student safety abroad and standardize educational institution study abroad protocols, Congressman Sean Maloney of New York introduced the Ravi Thackurdeen Safe Students Study Abroad Act in September 2014. The Act sought to amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 by requiring additional reporting on crime and injury that occurs in study abroad programs. It proposed mandating all institutions with foreign study programs to maintain procedures for safeguarding students, providing pre-trip orientation sessions, and implementing biennial protocol reviews.

While the Act has yet to be enacted, it presents basic measures that all colleges and universities with study abroad programs should strongly consider implementing in order to both reduce potential exposure and to make compliance easier if and when the Act becomes law. The Act is named after Ravi Thackurdeen, a Swarthmore College student who in 2012 tragically drowned after being caught in a rip current while studying abroad in Costa Rica as part of a Duke University program on Global Health. Thackurdeen’s estate sued Duke, alleging that the University failed to provide adequate warning of the dangers of swimming along the coastline where Thackurdeen was taken by the program as part of a beach trip and subsequently drowned.

Accidents such as Thackurdeen’s death highlight the importance of institutional risk assessment and implementing reasonable precautions to protect student safety. Colleges and universities must provide accurate information to students and their families that enable them to make informed choices. Additionally, practices should be exercised that mitigate the risk of unnecessary harm.

Although the Safe Students Study Abroad Act has yet to pass, higher education institutions must still ensure compliance with the Clery Act, Title IX, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), among other regulations. Application of the Clery Act, which requires higher education institutions to report statistics of sexual assault and domestic violence that occur on campus, in the study abroad context hinges on the amount of control a school maintains over the program. With respect to a permissive program (i.e., a foreign institution’s program in which students may participate, but has no formal relationship with the U.S. school) the Clery Act does not apply to the U.S. institution. On the other end of the spectrum, a university-owned and operated program implicates the Clery Act. In general, as the degree of ownership and control over a foreign study program increases, so too does the potential liability of the operating institution.

What This Means For You

A primary challenge of study abroad risk management is the lack of clear standards providing guidance on how to develop effective safety protocols. In order to minimize student and institutional risk, colleges and universities should construct a robust risk management policy. An institutional study abroad committee, consisting of school administrators from various departments, should take the lead on creating such a policy. While implementation of a comprehensive policy demands considerable resources, such costs pale in comparison to safety concerns and institutional liability that may otherwise result.