Study-Abroad Missteps Remind Colleges of Need to Train Trip Leaders

May 26, 2010

A short-term study-abroad trip to Costa Rica run by Laramie County Community College was disrupted when the care of a student feared to be at risk of suicide was entrusted to other students on the August 2008 program. An internal review panel's report, part of which was leaked to a Wyoming newspaper, sharply criticizes decisions by college officials, including the president, who was on the trip.

The missteps by trip organizers, international-education experts say, underscore the need for proper training on health and safety issues, including mental-health concerns, for faculty members, who are leading trips overseas in greater numbers. The incident also highlights the challenge of the screening and supervision of mentally troubled students, who are studying abroad with greater frequency.

The community college had tried to block the Wyoming Tribune Eagle from publishing articles about the report, which admonished the president, Darrel L. Hammon, and other trip leaders for their handling of the situation. Their actions, the report says, endangered the at-risk student and impaired the educational experience for other participants. College officials had argued that news reports could violate student privacy.

A woman in Mr. Hammon's office said the president would not comment on the trip or on other actions taken in the wake of the trip. She referred calls to the chairwoman of the college's Board of Trustees, Brenda Lyttle. Ms. Lyttle, who had first read the full report on Tuesday, said she could not comment on the report itself because the board had not yet met to discuss it.

10 Anxious Days

According to a summary of the report, posted on the Web site of The Cheyenne Herald, the student exhibited the potential to harm herself on the first night of the 10-day course, "Field Methods in Biological Sciences."

Chaperones on the trip, including Mr. Hammon, who was listed as a course editor/instructor, did not send the student home or apparently consult with mental-health professionals, either in Costa Rica or Wyoming, the Herald reported.

Instead, they designated another student on the trip, who was an emergency medical technician, to act as a "pharmacist," meting out prescription medications to the troubled student after she attempted to take an overdose. But the student/EMT did not have the proper credentials to do such work, the report notes, and the college could have faced significant liability if the student had been wrongly medicated.

Another student who was assigned to room with the suicidal student told the review committee she put wet towels and suitcases in front of the door so that she would be awakened if her roommate tried to leave. She also slept wearing a headlamp so she could check on the woman.

In letters to the panel, known as the Care Team, participants on the trip said they knew the student was a "cutter" and that they were constantly taking knives and glasses away from her during meals and in hotel rooms. One of the students was given the troubled student's razors and observed the woman trying to "cut open her arms by rubbing them on the pipes under the sink."

Mr. Hammon, the students wrote, allowed the suicidal student to buy a knife from a souvenir shop. In his own letter, Mr. Hammon wrote that "after some negotiation and compromise and against better judgment," he permitted the purchase. The student ran into traffic with the knife after others tried to take it from her, according to students' accounts.

Mr. Hammon also wrote that he was prepared to send the student home but allowed her to stay after she met several conditions. But he said that if he had known more about the student's mental-health status, he would not have allowed the woman to travel to Costa Rica in the first place.

Challenges for Study-Abroad Planners

Study-abroad experts say that colleges should have policies and procedures in place to screen students for mental-health issues and to determine how to handle such problems overseas. "There's a growing need for study abroad to deal with mental-health issues, which mirrors the growing challenges on campus," says Gary Rhodes, director of the Center for Global Education at Loyola Marymount University, an online clearinghouse for information about health and safety in education abroad.

At Eastern Illinois University, the study-abroad application asks students to check a box stating if they have had mental-health problems, now or in the past, says Wendy S. Williamson, the director of study abroad there. Students who check the box are then evaluated by college mental-health counselors, who determine whether they can go overseas. Students might be encouraged to participate in another, less-stressful trip, or they could be allowed to go on the trip but with special accommodations or monitoring, she says.

Before Eastern Illinois faculty members can teach courses overseas, they must complete a workshop on risk management and student health and safety, says Ms. Williamson, who also is a founder of, an online resource for education abroad.

A growing number of colleges are requiring faculty leaders to go through special training to avert problems like those encountered on the Laramie trip or on a 2007 University of Washington program in Ghana, in which half of the participants had to be airlifted out due to medical concerns.

The report by the Laramie review panel calls on college officials to prepare instructors and chaperones to manage mental-health and other emergencies abroad.

It also says the college should be more rigorous in selecting and training faculty and administrative leaders, and recommends that students participating on overseas programs be asked to sign medical-release forms so instructors and chaperones are aware of any mental-health problems that could arise.

Ms. Lyttle, the board chairwoman, said the college has approved a new student travel policy incorporating some of the recommendations since the report was written, in January 2009, although she said she did not know the details of that new policy.

Ms. Williamson says it is impossible to train faculty leaders for every problem that could arise on a trip overseas. What's most important, she says, is to make sure they are aware of the wealth of resources and expertise back on campus that they can turn to in an emergency.

"If a student breaks a leg, you wouldn't try to operate on her yourself," Ms. Williamson says. "But somehow we think we can handle mental-health issues on our own."