Significant numbers of study-abroad students engage in dangerous and potentially illegal behaviors while they’re far away from the safety net of home, according to a new national survey by On Call International, a travel risk management company.

These behaviors include consuming more alcohol than usual, trying controlled substances for the first time, engaging in romantic encounters with strangers, and accepting rides from strangers who aren’t professional drivers.

Safety issues can be compounded during study-abroad trips, when unfamiliar surroundings, language barriers and cultural differences are thrown into the mix.

But student affairs administrators can mitigate the risks and liabilities, helping to ensure a safer study-abroad experience, according to Jim Hutton, chief security officer at On Call.

In fact, colleges have a legal obligation to avoid foreseeable risk for study-abroad programs, including a duty to understand the current operating environment, educate and train participants, and have solid communication plans, he said.

Failure to implement a proactive approach to study-abroad safety could endanger your students, lead to lawsuits and bad press, and damage your school’s brand and reputation in the eyes of your stakeholders, Hutton said.

It can be difficult to hold students’ attention during advance preparation and education, which can also be time-consuming and expensive, Hutton said. But that investment can help you avoid a crisis, which would become even more complex and time-consuming, he said.

And, if a crisis does occur, evidence of your pre-emptive, proactive work will lessen your liability, he said. “If you can demonstrate due diligence, you’re going to be in a better position to address any concerns,” he said.

Hutton highlighted 10 key steps you can take to improve study-abroad safety:

  1. Educate students about the host country’s culture. Provide students and their parents with study-abroad orientation through online or in-person training. Review language, food, alcohol/drug laws/expectations, appropriate versus inappropriate gestures, and issues of race, sex and gender, including public displays of affection. Female students may need to understand the ramifications if they don’t conform to the clothing expectations in conservative countries. Sensitize students to cultural and political differences. “Nationalism can certainly creep in. Lack of experience can creep in. There can be intentional or accidental cultural rubs,” Hutton warned. That’s why you need to prepare students for how to prevent and respond to cultural misunderstandings, as well as assaults and sexual abuse. Educate students about the gender roles in the host country. For example, female students might find themselves on the receiving end of unwanted attention in other countries where residents or authorities might look the other way or even treat such behavior as acceptable. Arm students with strategies to de-escalate such situations, whether by making a quick phone call to a predesignated emergency contact or leaving the area. Also consider prearranging a partnership with a local host — an individual (perhaps a bilingual student) who lives in that country who speaks that language, understands that culture, and can help de-escalate problem situations. “Local knowledge is best,” Hutton said. You can find local hosts through destination management companies or transportation/insurance companies. Or, at a bare minimum, bring along someone from the United States who understands that country’s culture and language.
  2. Plan for students’ health needs. Ensure students receive any necessary inoculations and that they will have proper food available. Ensure they’re carrying legal, original prescriptions in case they need to show them to authorities. For students with chronic conditions, such as asthma and diabetes, ensure they have medical clearance, necessary medications, and paper or electronic medical records. Plan where students will go if they need a specialist or a hospital with a burn unit or trauma center. Have a plan for medical evacuations.
  3. Ensure study-abroad staff have crisis management/response training. “Sometimes it’s hard to make it better, but you can certainly make it worse if you make poor decisions,” Hutton said. Know if your host country is prone to natural disasters, such as earthquakes, or air quality problems, and have crisis management plans in place for each situation, he said. In advance, find out the answers to these questions: “Does the management of the traveling partner have some background in crisis management and do they have a clear communication system? Does everyone know how to get help when they need it?” Also have a plan for how you’ll respond if a student is harmed, including steps to communicate with, protect and provide emotional support to the other students, giving them the option to stay or return home.
  4. Provide communication plans. Ensure students and staff know how to reach each other and where to report accidents, injuries, crimes, concerns, etc. Identify one main contact person for emergencies. Establish a communication tree and a system for sending blast texts/emails to everyone. Encourage students to watch out for one another, recognize signs/symptoms of depression/anxiety/behavioral shifts, and how to take appropriate action. Ask each study-abroad group to send a weekly group Facebook message and schedule a weekly group dinner. Also encourage students to share their study-abroad photos and comments through a staff-monitored blog or social-media account. Ask students and parents to plan regular check-ins with one another by phone or email. Tell parents who to call or email if they pick up any inkling of concern.
  5. Research crime for each study-abroad location. Crime rates are often underreported, categorizations can greatly differ, and there’s often a one-to-two-year lag in the data. But you can access the American Embassy’s crime and safety report as a starting point. Consider arranging for a security manager, agent or guards to provide an added layer of protection.
  6. Investigate study-abroad partners, and housing and transportation providers. Find out safety records and fire prevention/response plans, including fire exits, alarms, extinguishers and sprinklers. Try to keep your students together in housing that has a secure access control system. Ask about escorts to parking lots. Remember, other countries don’t have the same standards, requirements or laws. Access a third-party provider to make sure vehicles (including boats) and their drivers/operators are safe and sober.
  7. Look into the safety of excursions. “A lot of the accidents and injuries occur during free time,” Hutton said. Driving and swimming are the most common areas of injury for study-abroad students, especially when alcohol is involved, he said. “Equip them with information so they can make better choices,” he said. Overcome students’ sense of invincibility by sharing narratives of near-misses or crises that have happened in that area where they’re going. That will have more power than a list of dos and don’ts. Tell students which roads and beaches are dangerous, including rip currents and lifeguard availability. Find out and communicate the rules of the road and license/insurance requirements for drivers. Or, better yet, keep students out of the driver’s seat by arranging for students to use safe shuttles or public transportation, and/or hiring a transport coordinator. And address how students should handle travel into other countries beyond the study-abroad location’s borders.
  8. Address conduct expectations. Teach students how to be good guests, and what that means in that particular country. Encourage students to use positive peer pressure to reel in students who act inappropriately. Explain that failure to do so can negatively impact the whole group because they’re representing their school and their country. Prepare students for how they’re expected to handle access to recreational drugs and alcohol, which may be legal in the host country but not back home. Warn students that using drugs or alcohol, or any other misconduct, would violate your school conduct code, which travels with them. Depending on the area they’re traveling to, you might need to tack on additional requirements, such as curfews, or prohibit driving because the roads are too dangerous. Have students sign a contract confirming they consent to the requirements. The contract should also state that if students engage in misconduct, choose to live outside school-arranged housing, or opt out of a communication tree, the school is no longer responsible for them. Ensure students understand the potential ramifications and seriousness of criminal activity, which could lead to arrest and land them in the criminal justice system in a foreign country, where they won’t be protected by U.S. laws or American status. Warn them that an incident involving U.S. students could inadvertently trigger pre-existing distrust or animosity toward Americans.
  9. Have students register with the U.S. government before departure. Go to to register with the U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.
  10. Re-evaluate study-abroad procedures and partners frequently. Even if you’ve sent students to the same foreign country for years, don’t assume nothing has changed or needs to be changed. “Complement that muscle memory with situational awareness,” Hutton advised. Look into what might have changed since the last trip, including politics, crime rates, safety standards and laws. The safety records of your transportation partners can even change. Or, transportation coordinators might have changed shuttle providers, for example. Find out exactly why something costs less money, and if that new provider has the same safety precautions in place.

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