State Sen. Terri Bonoff’s three-week fall trek across Minnesota to talk with students about crushing college debt shows concern for the well-being and bright futures of our state’s emerging adults. That concern doesn’t end at the state border.
Quietly, and for many weeks, Bonoff also has been working on legislation she’ll introduce early in the 2014 session on a related and urgent matter. If the law passes, Minnesota once again will be a role model for the nation. It will be a bittersweet victory.
“As a parent, I just felt for them,” Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said in early October. “I wanted to do something.”
In June, Bonoff was contacted by Sheryl Hill of Mound and Elizabeth Brenner of Minnetonka.
Hill is founder of the ClearCause Foundation, a nonprofit organization launched in 2011 to create tools to protect kids and to demand state and federal oversight of all middle, high school and college study-abroad programs. Her 16-year-old son, Tyler, died a preventable death in 2007 on a People to People Student Ambassador trip to Japan.
Brenner’s 20-year-old son, Thomas Plotkin, died in India in 2011 after falling off a cliff while leading a group of students on a hike along the Gori Ganga River. His body was never found.
The law, co-authored in the House by Rep. Yvonne Selcer, DFL-Minnetonka, would expand a Minnesota statute to protect students abroad to the same or greater degree that foreign students are protected here.
“As a parent, I understand the importance of study abroad,” Bonoff, said of the $20 billion student-exchange industry. All four of her grown children have spent time overseas.
Yet she’s gotten pushback from some who question her effort, pointing out that more kids die annually in traffic crashes. “Yes,” Bonoff said, “but you have to report traffic accidents.”
While the law would be limited to reporting of injuries and deaths, and is not a demand for uniform safety standards, Brenner sees it as a heartening step. “If you don’t have even the most basic numbers, it’s hard to make improvements,” said Brenner, a writer, who found out a week after her son’s death that his was the 12th fatality within the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) program.
“We’re not asking anything,” Brenner said, “that is not asked of other industries.”
To be clear, no one interviewed wants to shut down programs. On the contrary, these heartbroken parents still speak of the importance of sending youth overseas — as long as programs are run safely and held accountable.
Hill has developed a comprehensive checklist for students to encourage them to travel wisely, and is soon releasing an SOS GPS to help students in trouble. Hill hosted many foreign students with her husband, Allen, as well as Tyler and their younger son Alec.
While foreign students enjoy firm protections when studying in the United States, Hill was stunned to learn that there are no comparable measures offered to our children overseas.
No sanctions are in place for programs that put American children in danger. No uniform database informs parents, teachers and schools about deaths or injuries and under what circumstances.
Programs, Hill said, investigate themselves and often notify their insurance companies and attorneys before notifying families, “if they even notify families.”
David P. Angueira, a Boston attorney, is representing two families of students who died while studying abroad. He has spoken with Hill “and I fully support her efforts.
“Parents love the idea of sending their kids on these trips,” Angueira said. “What parents don’t know is that these companies enter into independent contract agreements with providers in host countries. Some are licensed, but not all. The tour company will have schools and students sign releases. How often do you read the small print? You’d better start reading it. They put in language that says, ‘If your kid gets killed, you can’t sue us.’ ”
Some parents are suing anyway. The Shane family of Kansas filed a lawsuit against Arizona State University after their 21-year-old son, Joshua, was pulled out to sea on a study-abroad program in Thailand in 2012.
“I don’t want money, I want answers,” said Joshua’s mother, Mindy Shane, who said she was initially “incredibly naive. I thought that because he was in school, earning credits, there would be an investigation. They said, ‘What investigation? He drowned.’ ”
Ros Thackurdeen was in the Twin Cities in June for a ClearCause fundraiser and to be among families that, she said, “share an unspoken understanding.”
Her 19-year-old son, Ravi, a sophomore at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, was on a rigorous global medicine trip to Costa Rica through the school’s study-abroad office, when on a weekend break in April of 2012, he and other students were taken to a beach.
Ravi was pulled out on a rip current. “There were no flotation devices, no rope, no working communication devices,” said Thackurdeen, of upstate New York. “They watched my son struggle for 40 minutes, then watched him go under.”
She later learned that locals never swam in this dangerous spot. “The program told me they were not responsible for what happened to my son,” she said through tears.
Bonoff, who is chair of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, has discussed her concerns with Larry Pogemiller, commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, who has been supportive.
“It’s all about developing a law that’s going to work,” Bonoff said. “We think that asking for reporting on safety standards, rather than issuing a mandate on program specifics, achieves the right balance.”
By ratcheting up oversight, Bonoff said, Minnesota can become a model for the nation. Sheryl Hill is already a brave role model for too many families enduring unfathomable loss.
“Sheryl is driven to make a difference,” Bonoff said. “She sees herself as everyone’s mom. They’re all her kids.”