India crash wake up call for schools and parents.
By J. Taylor Buckley
The world and its media hardly blinked when a tour bus crashed in India in the spring of 1996.
Today, the reverberations of that crash echo through a nervous college community where just about everyone knows it as “the Semester at Sea tragedy.”
Unfolding in horrific detail in crates of documents piling up in courthouses and law offices nationwide, it is the story of four U.S. college students who died on the adventure of their lives when their bus careened off a highway and tumbled into a crumpled heap.
The accident is among a recent series of deaths, injuries and illnesses that are prompting a widespread re-evaluation of study abroad — that quiet, cliquish, centuries-old corner of the American college scene.
With an expected 100,000 college students planning to study abroad this year, universities are re-examining how they run their programs, with particular focus on safety and liability.
Parents are demanding schools shoulder blame for death and injury and beef up training for program leaders. And lawyers, rarities in the past, are cranking up lawsuits in state and federal courts, forcing all sides to determine who is responsible for taking care of students thousands of miles from home.
The move to ensure student safety has taken on a new urgency as more students travel to countries once considered too risky because of disease or terrorism or politics.
Just this summer, students from Indiana were caught in political strife in Cambodia, while in Ecuador, the wife of the tour director for a group of University of New Mexico students was shot to death by robbers.
“We’re madder than hell our daughters were killed,” says Anne Schewe, mother of 20-year-old Sara, one of the students who died in the India bus crash.
Now, Schewe is party to a lawsuit against the program operators and the University of Pittsburgh, trip sponsor.
It’s a suit that’s being closely watched as a test case with the potential to substantially change the way study abroad programs operate.
If the suing parents are successful, “It won’t be the size of the check as to our personal monetary recovery,” says John Amato, whose daughter, Virginia, also died in the crash. “It will be the size of the check as a wake-up call.”
The call can’t come soon enough for reformers like Gary Rhodes, who says the study abroad industry has “no real definition of what the minimum standards are.”
Rhodes, program coordinator in the University of Southern California Office of Overseas Studies, says it’s no wonder “you have issues falling through the cracks.”
But things are changing. Schools have quit being travel agents because of potential liability and are tightening insurance requirements.
Waivers warning students of danger are standard, and the industry is coming to grips with the dilemma of how much to tell students about past deaths and injuries.
No one knows how many American students studying overseas are injured, fall seriously ill or die each year. No one keeps track.
And even as the 350 schools sponsoring study-abroad programs pump out lavish brochures inviting students to get a “global perspective,” most keep a tight lid on past troubles.
Their reluctance to disclose anything negative is not unusual. It took a 1990 act of Congress, for example, to force schools to release records of crimes that occur on campus.
The rising tide of litigation, however, has not gone unnoticed.
“We’ve been good,” says Bill Cressey, a vice president at the Council on International Education Exchange, a major player and influence in the industry. “But we’ve also been lucky. So we’re now saying, ‘Let’s re-examine everything.’ ”
Robert Aalberts, professor of legal studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, agrees that luck has been on the side of the sponsors.
But Aalberts, who has written on the subject of study abroad liability, believes schools are “lucky there has been so little litigation, vs. a fair number of problems. . . . Some tragic things have happened.”
Among them: an alleged rape in a host home in Japan; a disfiguring, parasitic disease inflicted by a fruit fly bite in Costa Rica; murder and banditry in Ecuador; a killing in Moscow; the bus crash in India.
At the heart of the lawsuits spawned by some of these incidents is a gap in the understanding between schools and families over how much responsibility for students’ safety the schools must bear.
The schools consider their charges informed adults who are given plenty of warning and guidance on avoiding perils overseas.
To reinforce those caveats, most schools require students or parents to sign waivers absolving sponsors of liability when something goes awry.
The families insist their children are entitled to a special measure of supervision and protection while temporarily living abroad.
The Amatos were typical.
As they shared their daughter’s exuberance over the prospect of an around-the-world tour on a top-drawer program, they weighed the risks. Aware that the greatest dangers await students who strike out on their own, they insisted she stick to outings planned and supervised by the organizers.
| They went over the itinerary and the small print releasing the operators from liability in the event of accidents. Then they entrusted 20-year-old Virginia’s life to a known and respected institution: the University of Pittsburgh.
“These people held themselves up as experts,” says Amato’s wife, Virginia. “We had a tremendous measure of confidence. Obviously, it was misplaced.”
Once considered a perk of the intellectually or financially elite, foreign study is increasingly popular. Schools emphasizing language and international studies make travel almost mandatory. Middlebury (Vt.) College, for instance, will send 370 students to 34 countries this year, putting more than half of its junior class in study abroad.
Peterson’s Study Abroad 1997, a popular guide, lists more than 1,500 recognized programs in 90 countries offered through 350 accredited U.S. and foreign schools.
Hundreds more programs operate in rented space on prestigious campuses the world over.
An increasing number of high schools also are sending groups on foreign cultural junkets, though for much shorter periods.
Western Europe still is the top destination. But because of cost and accessibility, increasing numbers of young people are going to countries once considered politically off-limits or otherwise dangerous, raising the odds for trouble.
In the last several months, a dozen Indiana Wesleyan University students got caught up in the Cambodian fighting. They escaped
unharmed, with the group leader and two students barely making the last plane out before authorities closed the Phnom Penh airport.
In Ecuador, the wife of the study tour director from the University of New Mexico was murdered by thugs in a situation the State Department specifically warns travelers to avoid. Her two children and 12 university students watched in horror as she was gunned down by fleeing bandits.
Right now, though, every eye in the tight circle of foreign study administrators is focused on Pittsburgh, home of the prominent and popular overseas study program known as Semester at Sea.
Semester at Sea, run by the Institute for Shipboard Education, is a private non-profit group that operates out of the University of Pittsburgh. Each semester, it carries nearly 600 college students around the world on its “floating classroom” — a cruise ship named Universe Explorer. Since the program began in 1963 under the name World Campus Afloat, 30,000 students have participated.
Another 585 sail Sunday from Vancouver for a four-month voyage.
It has an excellent safety record. Tuition, room, board and incidentals can run $ 20,000 per student, including side trips at about a dozen ports of call.
Students can pick from about 275 side trips, organized to give them an opportunity to soak up local history and culture.
An hour before midnight on March 27, 1996, on the fabled Grand Trunk Road from Delhi to Agra, one of the side trips turned into disaster.
A last-minute scheduling mix up put the students on a plane from Varanasi to Delhi, not to Agra as advertised. The students were shocked to discover they would then ride on buses for six hours from Delhi to Agra. One of the buses, carrying 27 Americans, swerved and careened into a ditch. Seven people died, including four students.
The multiple lawsuits filed by parents of the students who died charge the University of Pittsburgh and the program operators with negligence.
“Negligence in placing those students on that bus for six hours in darkness,” says Bob Unterberger, one of the lawyers for the families.
The families will argue that planning for the side trip was sloppy, that the people in charge made a bad decision, that the bus operator was an unknown and that everyone should have known that the road to Agra is a death trap by night.
Pitt and the Semester at Sea operators will argue that they have been on that road before, that their Indian tour arranger had worked for them for years and that they took every necessary precaution.
And they also will say that students and parents should understand that overseas study is not risk free.
“While we have a family environment on board and I and other. . . staff are concerned about the welfare of all individuals, it does not alleviate the responsibilities of both parents and students when making decisions about studying abroad,” says John Tymitz, executive director of Semester at Sea. “Students and their parents need to be aware that there are certain risks inherent in any kind of travel.”
John Lillis, the lawyer for Semester at Sea and Pitt, blames study abroad lawsuits on “an attitude in our society that any time something happens it has to be someone’s fault and therefore someone must pay. I respectfully disagree. . . . Things in our lives just occur.”
The outcome of the litigation, which could take years to resolve, will be far-reaching because for the first time, two areas of case law converge. The case will test the limits of liability as defined by travel law.
It will also have courts define more precisely the extent of a school’s duty to protect its students on and off campus.
But the case is about more than blame and obligation. It’s about young lives cut short.
|Top 10 host countries American students in 1994-1995 school year.
1. United Kingdom -19,410
|2. France – 7,842
|3.Spain – 7,473
|4. Italy – 7,062
|5. Mexico – 4,715
|6. Germany – 3,504
|7. Australia – 2,746
|8. Israel – 2,621
|9.Costa Rica – 2,302
|10. Japan – 2,212
“Every parent shudders at the thought of the loss of a child,” says John Amato, a prominent lawyer in New Orleans. “But it’s an experience you wouldn’t wish on an enemy. We’re a year and a half into this, and numbness still surrounds us.”
Far from being numbed, however, the study abroad industry dwells on every detail of the tragedy and its ramifications, legal and moral. Some contend the nighttime crash on a notoriously Wild West kind of road was what it took to shake the establishment from its lethargy.
Bill Hoffa, a consultant on international education who helped craft a new handbook for study abroad advisers, won’t go so far as to say all schools had inadequate safety measures. But, he says, “The field was sleeping on this.”
The revised guide put out by the industry’s main professional group now has a chapter on liability and safety. But even this widely consulted handbook, published by the Association for International Educators, reveals how much still cries out for clarification:
“The question of institutional liability for student’s injuries,” says the book, “is a murky one.”
Effect of tragedy felt regardless of how the Semester at Sea cases are resolved, they are having an impact already.
Seminars on liability and risk management that once begged for audiences are now a priority at study abroad conventions.
Professional groups are joining forces to try to agree on how the responsibilities of students, parents and schools can be more clearly spelled out in advance. Schools are auditing how they prepare students for overseas study and how they handle emergencies.
“To be frank,” says Cressey, of the Council on International Education Exchange, “my most recent initiative in the safety area is really in part a response to the letters those (Semester at Sea) parents wrote.”
Much of the trouble and heartbreak, however, is beyond the scope of responsibility even common sense would assign to the schools.
The vast majority of deaths and injuries during foreign study, however many there might be, happen while students are off on their own.
Like similar tragedies at home, many involve drinking and drugs.
In some countries, says Richard Atkins of the International Legal defense Counsel, “students try to emulate their hosts by over imbibing.”
No matter the locale, he says, fights, traffic accidents and sexual assaults can almost always be traced to alcohol.
The manuals used by program supervisors are clear on drugs. “There is no such thing as TOO stern a warning about drug use,” advises one.
Semester at Sea has had its share of random tragedy: A student on a motorbike was struck and killed by a truck in Bali in 1973; a student died in a fall aboard ship in 1974; a student died in a fall from a pyramid in 1980; a student drowned in Sri Lanka in 1989; a student hiking at night died in Taiwan in 1993; a student jumped from the ship and died on the pier in Venezuela in 1995.
But until March 1996, Semester at Sea had not experienced a death on a shoreside program it supervised. Given the numbers of students it has escorted around the world and the propensity for young people to take risks, its safety record, by any measure, is good.
“We believe students are safer on board our ship than they are on their home campuses,” says Tymitz.
“The program puts a lot of thought into where they go and how they prepare you,” says Stuart Saunders, a 1984 Semester at Sea grad active in its alumni group. “Life inherently carries risk.”
How much risk, however, is hard to say.
“The only way we find out about” overseas accidents, says professor Aalberts, “is if it gets into the mainstream media or gets appealed.
A lot of time universities won’t disclose what’s going on. They’re afraid it will taint their reputations.”
Even now, the study abroad establishment is at odds over how much prospective students should be told about past troubles. Despite this panoply of problems, no one, not the industry’s harshest critics, not even the families of the victims of tragedies, want study abroad shut down. They simply ask for disclosure, clearer delineation of who is responsible and safe programs.
“We don’t want to scare parents off,” says Anne Schewe. “We just want to instill in the kids the fear of God.”