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Advocacy Alert: Study Abroad Legislation

The first and primary responsibility of every international educator is the health and safety of students. Program providers, colleges, universities and organizations that provide services to the field of education abroad continue to prioritize student safety above all other aspects of their roles. To support their endeavors to keep students safe, The Forum on Education Abroad has focused much energy and attention on providing resources, data and best practices related to student health and safety. The Forum’s Standards of Good Practice (current Standard 8) include guidelines and queries to help institutions assess their own health and safety policies and feature more than 60 resources submitted by Forum members on this topic. In 2016, The Forum first conducted research comparing student mortality rates in the U.S. with mortality rates while abroad, and then updated and expanded the data in 2018 to inform international educators and the public. In 2019, The Forum relaunched a new and improved Critical Incident Database, enabling members to track critical incidents that occur while students are off-campus, including reportable information as required by the Department of Education in compliance with the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (the Clery Act), Title IX, and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Collecting and analyzing incident data can help to improve health, safety, security, and risk management policies and procedures, inform staff training efforts, prepare orientation information for students, and more.

Currently, there are efforts underway to pass state and federal legislation to collect and publicize study abroad incident data. As reported and explained by Pulse: Higher Education Health, Safety and Security Professionals (PULSE), this legislation includes:

State Legislation that has been passed

Minnesota: In 2014, a law was passed in Minnesota resulting in an annual report hosted by the MN Office of Higher Education. The law requires MN colleges and universities to report deaths and hospitalizations abroad on a yearly basis. In 2015, a bill was passed in Minnesota to regulate K-12 student activities abroad, which was modeled after the higher education law.

Virginia: In 2016, Virginia passed a law requiring that the State Council of Higher Education develop Guidelines for study abroad. The developed Guidelines do not include a requirement for data reporting as in Minnesota but instead codify already established best practices in the field.

State Legislation that is pending

Massachusetts: In January 2019, Massachusetts state Senator Sal DiDomenico introduced Bill S.743 to the Joint Committee on Higher Education. A hearing occurred in April and it is unclear whether or not it has enough support to move forward.

New York: This state has seen proposed bills based on language similar to Ravi Thackurdeen Safe Students Study Abroad Act. The latest, Senate Bill S3844A/Assembly bill A7010A, sponsored by Senator Toby Ann Stavisky and Assemblyman Jonathan Jacobson, is pending for the 2019-2020 legislative session, resting with the Senate Rules Committee and Assembly Higher Education Committee.

Federal legislation that is pending

The Ravi Thackurdeen Safe Students Study Abroad Act: Currently introduced in the House and Senate. The text of both bills is identical. This bill would require universities to maintain a health and safety plan for credit bearing study abroad programs, including collecting and providing statistics for various categories of incidents incurred by students participating in the programs. The bill would also require institutions to provide pre-departure orientations for all students “interested” in studying abroad and post-program debriefings/interview for all students. A summary of the bill has recently been published by NAFSA.

Senate – SB 1572 – Sponsor Portman (R-OH); Co-sponsors Smith (D-MN), Gillibrand (D- NY), Markey (D-MA)
Status: Active
Current action – referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions

House – HR 2785– Sponsor Maloney (D-NY); King (R-NY); Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Krishnamoorthi (D-IL); Olson (R-TX)
Status: Active
Current action: Referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor.
The House Bill has been introduced in 2014, 2015 and 2017 and never made it beyond committee.

American Students Abroad Act: Currently introduced in House and Senate. This bill would authorize U.S. Department of State to provide consular reports on US citizens abroad to the CDC, which could then be classified to determine trends and risks. It is important to note that in previous version of this law in the House tied it to the Thackurdeen Act. The current language does not. Thus, support for this law does not entail support of the Thackurdeen Act.

Senate – SB 1575, Sponsor Portman (R-OH); Co-sponsors Gillibrand (D-NY), Markey (D- MA), Warren (D-MA)
Status: Active
Current action: Senate foreign relations committee

House – HR 2876 – Sponsor Maloney (NY); Co-sponsors King, (R-NY), Olson (R-TX), Fitzpatrick (R-PA)
Status: Active
Current action – referred to House Energy and Commerce and House Foreign Affairs committees

In addition to the pending federal legislation, the Higher Education Reauthorization Act (HEA) is again up for renewal. This legislation could potentially include a revision of the Clery Act. Should the HEA be renewed, it is possible that language used in The Ravi Thackurdeen Safe Students Study Abroad Act could be used as a template. If that were to happen, the incident reporting requirements would become federal law without a standalone bill being passed.

It is important for international educators to educate themselves, campus leaders, concerned parents and policy makers on the existing significant resources that are already dedicated to assist administrators, faculty and program providers to assess risk, prepare students, and establish effective emergency and crisis protocols. It cannot be overstated that the health and safety of students is of the utmost importance to our profession, as evidenced by the Standards of Good Practice.  Under the Clery Act, U.S. colleges and universities already comply with multiple federal reporting obligations of incidents occurring during study abroad. The proposed legislation would impose a higher reporting mandate on study abroad than exists on domestic campuses, without regard to whether the institution owns or controls a building or property at such location, even though recent research demonstrates that students are less likely to be victimized or die while abroad.

It is critical to be able to cite data from your own institution when speaking about the proposed legislation and student health and safety while abroad. Utilizing The Forum’s Critical Incident Database to track incidents involving your own participants and assessing your institution’s response is an important first step. Coordinating public comment or outreach to lawmakers with your senior international officer and state or federal relations officer(s) is highly recommended. Assisting decision makers to understand the full picture of resources available and measures already in place can help prevent expanded reporting requirements that do little to actually improve student safety so that campus resources can focus on the most effective safety practices.

The Forum’s President and CEO has reached out to University Risk Management and Insurance Association (URMIA), PULSE: Higher Education International Health and Safety Professionals, American Council on Education (ACE), NAFSA: Association for International Educators, the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange and several universities to collaborate on this issue.