Article by Stacey Freed
It was a dog bite that ended an overseas trip for a Lakeside School student two years ago. “The student had to be medevacked home for an antidote,” said Charlotte Blessing, director of global education at the Seattle co-ed day school. That’s the typical kind of crisis that occasionally arises on student trips abroad. But recent world events — terrorist attacks in Belgium and Paris, the Zika virus — have heightened anxiety among trip participants as well as business officers involved in their schools’ risk management function. How are independent schools managing those fears, evaluating risk factors and mitigating the financial liabilities associated with international travel programs?
Honesty and Transparency
The number-one thing schools can do to manage anxious parents and educate families is to have a robust orientation and enrollment process, said Joe Vossen, risk management counsel at United Educators. Hold mandatory pre-trip meetings in which you discuss all the risks involved. While you may end up sounding like Donald Rumsfeld in his speech on the “known knowns” and the “known unknowns,” you’ve got to cover everything you can. If parents live far away, as is often the case with boarding schools, arrange for Skype or phone meetings. Make sure parents know where they can get specific information about individual countries from resources such as the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization and Department of State.
Transparency is key with parents. “You have to give parents the opportunity to make an informed choice [about their child traveling abroad], which includes emphasizing to them the unpredictability of risk,” said Heather Broadwater, who works with many independent schools as a partner in the Potomac Law Group.
Likewise, button up procedures, and tell parents about the systems in place if something were to happen. To help with consistency, “Schools are wise to establish protocols and standard procedures, and memorialize these guidelines in a policy manual,” said Caryn Pass, a partner at Venable LLP and chair of the firm’s education practice. “The safety and security of students is a school’s primary responsibility. Proactively setting up procedures and systems in advance of a trip will place the school in a better position to create a safe experience for the traveling student and assist in a defense,” if needed.
Have a central point of contact at the school, regardless of who’s running the travel program, recommends Vossen. “Mom and Dad need to know who to call because they’ll call the home institution and not the third-party provider” if there’s a problem.
Require parents to read and sign a variety of forms and releases that clearly establish the terms and conditions of travel — and give them enough time to do so. Among other acknowledgements, parents should indemnify the school, release the school from liability, permit their child to receive medical treatment, confirm their child’s fitness to fully participate, agree to comply with the code of conduct, and grant permission for their child to travel back with an adult if they must return early, Pass said. Students and chaperones should also read and sign certain forms.
Joe Vogel, executive director and chair of the board of the Global Education Benchmark Group, is also director of the Center for Global Citizenship at the Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. His school has an “extensive legal packet” that parents are required to read and sign. “I start each packet with a program description that specifically sets forth issues of safety and health concerns,” he said. “I include information from the CDC and State Department.”
At Lakeside School, Blessing requires parents to attend a travel health meeting prior to any trip. “We have a global health doctor talk to the families. He has all our destinations and goes through the guidelines [with families] and drills down for each destination. He suggests vaccinations, talks about water quality and mosquitoes and road safety.” In addition, the school requires global travel students to have a form completed, preferably by a travel health doctor or their family doctor, as a final step in the process.
There is no cookie-cutter approach. Understanding your school’s culture and parents will go a long way toward helping to determine how best to impart information during pre-trip procedures. “If you’ve got a parent population that has traveled to or has significant knowledge of some of the same locations your trip is going, it can be helpful to parents’ ability to make an informed decision,” Broadwater said. “But in some cases, parents might need more outreach and education. You have to [figure out] the most effective way to help parents make an informed decision.”
In the summer of 2007, a 15-year-old student from the Hotchkiss School, of Lakeville, Connecticut, became ill on a school-sponsored trip to China, not long after she had participated in a hike on a forested mountain. The student was diagnosed with a tick-borne form of encephalitis and suffered brain damage. Her parents sued Hotchkiss claiming that the school had not taken the proper precautions. A jury sided with the family and awarded it $41.5 million in damages. Many organizations including NBOA and NAIS signed onto an amicus brief in support of the school’s appeal of the ruling. The case remains on appeal.
“Hotchkiss is a wise and thoughtful school and had in place practices to protect its students,” observed Pass (who does not represent the school). “The Hotchkiss community suffered a terrible tragedy. The reality is, there but for the grace of God goes any school.”
The Hotchkiss case has given schools pause in regard to study abroad programs, said Frank Aloise, CFO at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (SCH) in Philadelphia. It also has “made everyone wake up and pay closer attention” to risk management.
Bill Frederick, principle at Lodestone Safety International, said that over the past few years he has seen “a professionalizing of study abroad programs.” To that end, many schools now have individuals whose sole job is global education rather than having various teachers arrange their own travel programs or assign the coordinating tasks to someone who may already have a full-time teaching load.
"We know who we’re working with, and they know us."
Blessing is one such global travel program leader. To help mitigate risk, Lakeside School, which creates its own destinations, has developed partnerships with “people on the ground and small NGOs” in places like India, Tanzania, Senegal and Morocco. Before deciding on a location, Blessing and her staff do internet research and Skype with site partners. They also conduct site visits, get references from other schools that have been there, meet with homestay families, check local infrastructure and visit medical facilities. “We know who we’re working with, and they know us,” she said.
Homestays can be particularly worrisome because in many countries there’s no good way to conduct a criminal background check. Frederick said that homestays in which there’s an exchange — your student stays with a host family whose child then comes to the U.S. — offer more peace of mind because everyone has “skin in the game and there will be more trust.” Among other offerings, Lodestone has a “vetting manual” to help schools determine homestay appropriateness.
Whatever the risk — from allergies, illness, dog bites and traffic incidents (the top killer of Americans abroad, according to UE’s Vossen) to terrorism and disease — schools and ultimately parents must weigh the benefits of travel against the risks.
Rely on objective evidence when you’re researching health, safety and security issues, Vossen said. Be sure that what you’re reading is “impartial, well-researched and obtained close to the source.” Consider becoming a member of the State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council. “They send easy-to-digest emails and a weekly report. Membership is open to anyone in the U.S. private sector and provides detailed State Department reports on specific travel locations.” A good bellwether for safety is the Peace Corps, he added. “In July 2014, the Peace Corps pulled its volunteers from Kenya. That’s a great example of objective evidence a school can use to evaluate a location.” (All schools interviewed for this article mentioned using ISOS [International SOS] for support with international travel, including medical and emergency assistance abroad.)
Michael Ferrier, coordinator of global travel programs at SCH, relies on his school’s membership in the Global Education Benchmark Group, which helps establish best practices in global travel and curriculum, and is creating a database of critical incidents involving overseas travel. “We consult with them to establish our chaperone manuals and to find out what other independent schools are doing to manage risk,” said Ferrier.
William Scarborough is assistant superintendent for finance and business operations at Singapore American School. He said that since SAS is based abroad, it works closely with the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. Navy and a company called Control Risks, which “provides safety and security information as well as updates about national holidays, disruptions, demonstrations and anything else relevant to student travel.” The company also handles SAS’s travel accident insurance and logistics around emergency evacuation, if needed.
Being proactive about risk means training and having a “plan B.” Many of the schools interviewed for this article partner with Lodestone Safety International in training faculty to manage risk. Ferrier takes advantage of the company’s scenarios-based training. “You’re in Cambodia and a child begins to present symptoms of dengue fever. You’re at a homestay, it’s the middle of the night and the fever has spiked to 106. What do you do?” Ferrier said. Faculty walk out of these training sessions “feeling more confident knowing how to handle a situation they might encounter.” All Lodestone scenarios are taken from real situations faced by schools, he added.
Along with training, Blessing creates crisis management and communication plans that are reviewed every year before a trip leaves. “We go through it with our trip leaders. When they arrive at a destination they have to find evacuation meeting spots and show them to students.” Back at school, individuals are on call 24-7, along with a backup person. “We share the [plans] with the other administrators and make sure everyone is informed.”
Armed with knowledge, a school is better equipped to decide to change an itinerary, postpone or even cancel a trip, if needed. SCH had an Italy program planned for just after this spring’s terrorist attacks in Belgium. “There was parental anxiety over whether to postpone or cancel outright,” Ferrier said. “We made subtle adjustments to the itinerary. We hired a private motor coach to take students from place to place, eschewing public transport at least in the immediate aftermath of the attack. We carefully monitored recommendations from the State Department and our risk management team. And we communicated it all to parents. They appreciated that.”
Layers of Protection
Besides Italy, SCH offers trips to countries including Cambodia, Senegal and Thailand, and also offers homestays and other options. For these reasons and more, Aloise said he puts in “layers of protection” for the liability associated with such programs. He works with an independent risk manager who helps the school write permission slips, suggests coverages and reviews contracts with other third-party travel companies, along with advising the school in its selection of a travel insurance policy. This kind of work is best left to professionals, Aloise believes. “Teachers are good at working with the kids and planning trips and making sure it’s a good experience. No one likes reading an insurance policy.”
SCH has about $20 million in coverage — “basic coverage and an umbrella,” Aloise said. “We feel it’s good for our size school.” He also purchases a foreign travel insurance policy through the school’s insurance company, and advises having someone independent from your broker — perhaps an expert from your board or the business office — make sure “past coverages do cover things along the way.”
Does working with a third-party travel company let a school off the hook for liability? Not necessarily, said Lodestone’s Frederick. “You really have to vet them. Find out what they do and how they do it.” He suggests researching information such as how homestay families are chosen. Is the neighborhood safe? Will students be transported by the family? On a motorcycle or some other vehicle? Learn about the company’s safety record and what kind of insurances they have. Have they had a fatality? What’s the average age of their staff and their experience level? What certifications do staff members have? Ask other schools if they’ve used the company. Visit with the company itself and look carefully at its website. A website red flag: “When they talk about their staff but all you learn about are staff hobbies and interests and you don’t get their experience and background. It’s just for marketing.”
And whether your school uses a third party or makes its own arrangements, be clear on cancellation and refund policies. Cindy Stadulis, director of finance and operations at Kentucky Country Day School, had to cancel a Paris trip just after last November’s attacks. “The teacher running the program didn’t feel comfortable going, and the school supported her,” Stadulis said. New to KCD at the time, Stadulis didn’t know much about its relationship with its third-party travel vendor. When the company wouldn’t budge on
any refund, it left a bad taste for all involved. “They held firm to their policy, and the more I talked with them the more frustrated I got. Our families had purchased trip insurance and even that wasn’t going to be reimbursed.”
The school ended up rescheduling the trip, ultimately creating a system whereby future travelers could purchase vouchers from families who paid in full. Disappointed in the company’s service, Stadulis was seeking a new partner as of this spring. “We will have very clear expectations of cancellation policies,” she said.
Despite the amount of work involved in developing a solid travel abroad program, along with the possible risks, experiential and hands-on global studies are integral to the curriculum for many independent schools. “These overseas travel opportunities are vital to our mission,” said Scarborough of SAS, which annually sends more than 1,000 high school students on dozens of trips to countries across several continents. “Teachers and students alike view trips as some of the most exciting, engaging and eye-opening learning experiences they ever have.”
The number of students going overseas to learn is not going to dwindle. Although there is no hard data, Frederick believes that approximately 800 independent schools have overseas programs, and that “between higher education, gap year programs and independent schools, probably 1 million students are going abroad.”
Even while working hard to take all precautions, parents, students and school administrators must remember “there is no such thing as zero risk,” said Venable’s Pass. “It is all about risk assessment. Is it the type of risk that requires a belt? A belt and suspenders? Or a belt, suspenders and safety-pin your pants to the bottom of your shirt?” The key is proactive preparation. “Mistakes are made when people panic. Advance preparation benefits everyone and reduces liability.”