Study abroad deaths are more common than you realize, but these two moms are fighting for change
Each year, hundreds of thousands of college students embark on study abroad programs in the hopes of boosting their job prospects, making new memories, and gaining independence. But some of them don't make it back home. According to the Forum on Education Abroad, a non-profit recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice, 32 students died abroad from 2010 to 2016. Two women who both lost children studying abroad, however, have counted 110 deaths in the last decade based on their own research.
After connecting through social media in 2012, Elizabeth Brenner, mother of the late Thomas Plotkin, and Roshni Thackurdeen, mother of the late Ravi Thackurdeen, founded Protect Students Abroad (PSA), an organization that tracks, records, and reports student deaths abroad. Through PSA, the women are working to inspire lawmakers to pass bills advocating for student death transparency. “There’s nothing really out there that’s data-driven, and as far as we can tell, there probably won’t be until there’s some sort of legislation that mandates sharing it,” Brenner tells Mic.
When Brenner and Thackurdeen's sons died while studying in India in 2011 and Costa Rica in 2012, respectively, there was no official protocol in place for accurately tracking and recording their deaths, either at the campus or state level. If there had been, the women believe, it would have provided tangible evidence that study abroad deaths are common enough to warrant federal action.
Although there's no shortage of organizations pushing for the growth of study abroad, not a single federal agency, credentialing organization, or institution of higher education is tasked with counting deaths or injuries during study abroad. And because many students who study abroad do so through third-party organizations unaffiliated with their home schools — meaning the headquarters are often located in different states — the question remains of which state is responsible for tracking and reporting the student’s death.
Brenner and Thackurdeen argue that if organizations were to record meticulous aggregated data of student deaths abroad, academic researchers would have the tools to draw links between the deaths and factors like age, gender, and geographic location. Knowing how many students are actually dying and where could give researchers the tools to design science-backed preventative strategies.
Due in part to Brenner and Thackurdeen's tireless lobbying, lawmakers have started to take small steps towards accurate data collection at a federal level. In April 2014, Minnesota passed the Thomas Plotkin Bill (named after Brenner’s son), the first state legislation require the reporting of deaths and injuries during study abroad trips. In March 2016, Virginia issued The Duty of Care Law (in honor of Damion Wilkins, who died of a heart attack in the Peruvian jungle the year before) to ensure students have access to medical resources in the wake of an accident or illness in foreign countries.
This year, Senators Rob Portman and Elizabeth Warren, together with Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, introduced The Ravi Thackurdeen Safe Students Study Abroad Act, a federal law that requires each state to submit the number of American deaths that occur in foreign countries each quarter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. College campuses can now leverage this data to better inform how they run study abroad programs, or make more informed decisions about their choices of affiliated organizations.
“Study abroad has been around for decades and saw real growth in the ‘90s and early 2000s, but this is kind of the first time people have been talking on a national level about the safety issues,” Brenner says.
While these bills are a start, Brenner doesn't feel that they suffice since the parameters in both Minnesota and Virginia place some restrictions on what kind of student deaths they count. For example, under the Minnesota bill, deaths are only recorded if they occur during the exact duration of the study abroad program, and during an activity or event directly associated with the program.
While Thomas Plotkin's death did, in fact, occur within those parameters (the University of Iowa student fell 300 feet into a flooding river while studying with the National Outdoor Leadership School in India), the Department of State's U.S. Citizen Deaths Overseas database did not include a record of his death.
When Mic reached out for comment, a Department of State representative said that in order for the department to update its database of American citizens dying abroad, it needs official statements from foreign countries outlining cause of death. “While we won’t get into specific cases in our statistics, when the official record of death does not indicate a cause of death, we do not typically include it in the non-natural death statistics,” the official told Mic.
Even though Brenner says she did, in fact, receive an official death notice from both the government of India and the study abroad school, she suspects her son’s death was not recorded in the database either because of a lapse in communication, because the term “non-natural” is not clearly defined in the way the law is currently written, or because Plotkin's body was not found.
Ravi Thackurdeen's death, which occurred when the Swarthmore University biology major drowned at a notoriously dangerous Costa Rica beach, was also not recorded. In order for an incident to be recorded under the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, the program or the school has to be renting the given study abroad space for at least three years in a row. While Duke University (the school that ran Thackurdeen's study abroad program) was, in fact, renting the Costa Rica space for an adequate period of time, his death occurred away from the property, leaving the school with no obligation to record the incident under a Clery report.
According to Thackurdeen, news of her son’s death was mostly relegated to local news and the Duke and Swarthmore student newspapers, meaning that there was less awareness of the incident than she would've hoped — and less awareness means less outrage, which often means less action from lawmakers. Unless a student's death abroad involves multiple fatalities or acts of terrorism, media coverage is typically minor — and fleeting. Brenner notes that a school or program might remove any mention of a deceased student from its website after a short time, not because the case came to a satisfactory conclusion, but because the organization no longer wants to be affiliated with the incident so as not to hurt enrollment.
That's what Thackurdeen believes happened in her son's case. “When we finally concluded the case that didn’t really go anywhere, the whole program website was updated... so you couldn’t see any of my son’s information connected to that program,” she recalls.
Yet while Thackurdeen harbors resentment towards Swarthmore for this, her work with PSA lobbying for legislation provides some solace. Still, because of the Minnesota and Virginia bills’ limitations, it’s tough to gauge whether or not the number of student deaths has actually decreased since they’ve been enacted. “The Office of Higher Education would probably say there wasn’t much of an issue, but the department that actually collects the data would say they’re frustrated with the way the legislation was treated in the aftermath [of our sons’ deaths],” explains Brenner.
Unfortunately, getting a state or federal bill void of any limitations enacted isn’t exactly simple, the women have learned. When trying to pass a New York bill that asked for increased data transparency on student abroad safety, for instance, they received multiple rounds of pushback from lawmakers. A recent memo of opposition cited the request of recording student deaths as “redundant” and “administrative burdens [to] only increase the costs borne by our students.” The Commission on Independent Colleges & Universities effectively blocked the New York bill from leaving Committee, and it was finally derailed in May after several years of negotiations.
The women have also seen the power special interest groups hold in swaying legislation. At a meeting in May, a senator on the education committee told Thackurdeen that while he hoped the school "made up for what happened" with her son, he wondered how it would affect college enrollment.
Brenner notes that small colleges seem especially worried about the requirements for reporting student deaths. This is understandable, she says, since smaller schools are less likely to run their own student abroad programs, meaning that many students go abroad through third-party programs. Still, the way that current legislation is written, it's a student's home college or university that's obligated to report the death. As a result, U.S. colleges may feel they're being penalized for an incident they believe they played no part in.
However, even if colleges and governmental departments have agendas to contend with, “it’s as if every excuse is being thrown at the wall to see what sticks,” says Brenner. The main concern, the two mothers believe, should be students’ safety. It infuriates them to see the U.S. Department of Education failing to do its homework of keeping count of deaths, and to witness the struggles of getting legislation passed.
“These students are why you’re here in the first place,” says Brenner. “You should want every single one of them to come home.”
Editor's Note: This post was updated to accurately reflect the number of deaths counted by PSA.