PSA’s data project began in 2012, with deaths and injuries identified via the Internet, and then ever more systematic collection. At present, our data goes back to the early 1900’s. As future safety incidents occur, and historic incidents continue to be identified, we anticipate we will be continually updating our dataset.
While our project is not yet complete, we are about to begin publishing on this website information gathered and organized. Information will be uploaded in batches, starting with 2000-2017, and will progress chronologically backwards, with deaths published first, and eventually also a separate dataset of non-lethal injuries.
PSAs dataset is not about establishing culpability; it is about creating conditions for death and injury prevention. With this blog, we hope to anticipate questions and respond to concerns.
What principles motivated PSA’s data project?
Every student is a child-as-learner and every student is someone’s child.
When students are placed in a new and unique environment, their biological and experiential immaturity can be problematic to their safety.
Currently, pre-travel education abroad safety advice (based on a combination of institutional experience, common sense, and federal recommendations) is inadequate.
No federal, professional or educational entity counts and collects education abroad deaths and injuries in a transparent database.
Without comprehensive transparent education abroad safety data, education abroad leadership is unable to advocate for student safety based on scientific evidence.
High quality data can be aggregated and examined for death and injury patterns, which can inform education abroad program safety.
PSAs #1 goal is comprehensive transparent education abroad safety data.
Students and their parents have a right to make fully informed educational decisions, including accessible and comprehensive science-based safety information from all education abroad programs.
Students and their parents have a right to expect that education abroad programs will uses every possible means, including evidence based science, to protect the lives of learners.
Students are our country’s future workers, earners, voters, leaders, and parents of the next generation.
Education abroad is a terrific experience—but only if students safely return.
What is studenthood?
All over the world, societies have constructed a unique role for those who are no longer children and not yet adults. We define this period of time as studenthood, a passage between youth and maturity, marked by social and psychological pressures, high expectations and hopes, expanding experience, experimentation, and formalized learning.
Who is a student?
Perhaps this seems like a silly question. However, a student will mean one thing to a grade school teacher teacher taking classroom attendance. It will mean something else to a college admissions officer counting how many students will be in the freshman class.
In a way, both the teacher and the admissions officer are collecting data. When different data collectors count for different purposes they will end up with different datasets. And that is OK, so long as the data collector’s definition of whom they are counting (in this case, “student”) is clear and consistently applied.
Well-articulated definitions are particularly important to scientific research. From the outset, one must understand who is being counted and who is not being counted.
Who are the students PSA does and does not count?
We count high school students, undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs conducting research for their doctoral dissertation.
We count students of any age traveling under the auspices of federal programs, such as Fulbright.
There are two categories of students we debated about and ultimately included. The first were American students who directly enrolled with education programs overseas.
Also, though we initially removed post-undergrads, we re-added two groups: students who were on educational abroad programs and/or internships in preparation for continued education, such as grad school; students who were continuing as a direct enroll an education abroad experience that had that begun as a formal education abroad.
All of these students we counted door-to-door, from the time they left home until their deaths. This means we included student deaths during pre, post, and interim travel, as well as deaths that occurred during what education abroad professionals call “free time.”
We removed from our dataset students whose travel was not education-related. In other words, we did not include tourists who also happened to be students.
Why did PSA count so broadly?
Students are a distinct population. They’re no longer children, and not yet adults. Rather, students are moving through a transition marked by increased physical capability, but also (as science has demonstrated) incomplete neurological wiring. While young brains are primed for learning, they are also primed for less developed decision-making, including an emphasis on peer group affiliation over cautious risk-taking.
Placed in an unfamiliar location, a student’s instincts for reading that landscape can be challenged. American students who have never traveled outside the U.S. may be particularly vulnerable if they view the rest of the world as being more similar to the home than is true.
During education abroad, though students may aspire to function like experienced grown-ups, many depend on their “guides” (teachers, field staff, administrative faculty, and the field of education as a whole) for the wisdom they have not yet attained. If quick decision-making becomes necessary, particularly without the input of experienced adults, catastrophe can ensue.
Moreover, if field staff, themselves, do not have a solid understanding of a particular location—and here, I’m not talking book knowledge, I’m talking about enough practical knowledge to read landscape as a local person would—any situation involving an inexperienced student can quickly devolve from safe to risky.
Unfortunately, when students die during study abroad, their deaths are not collected and studied. Oh yes, insurance companies will count students they insure, especially if survivors file a claim. And yes, a couple of education abroad professional membership organizations ask for voluntary counts of certain data, while programs themselves presumably collect safety data, which they keep for themselves.
However, none of this information is transparent and available to the public. Nor is any of it comprehensive (meaning institutions measure the same things, then share information to create a significantly large dataset). This means that there’s no high quality safety science informing education abroad—which is regrettable, for surely both students and on-the-ground faculty would benefit from such knowledge.
For all of these reasons, we deliberately counted broadly, in order to capture the ever-expanding student population that reflects trends within the student travel industry. As a result, our dataset represents a count that will not be matched by any current organization.
How did PSA gather information?
In 2012, Ros started using the Internet to collect news stories about education abroad deaths and injuries. She placed these stories into a two-inch binder. Currently, Ros has filled seven binders.
In 2014, Congressman Maloney’s staff began placing Ros’s information into an Excel spreadsheet. Information was arranged by state, which was useful for Maloney’s staff when identifying legislative support.
Both compilations presented issues for PSA. Neither was chronological. Also, students who were travelers, but weren’t specifically traveling as students, had been mistakenly included.
Once PSA’s student population was determined, what information was gathered and how was it formatted?
Since chronology is essential to our objective of an historic narrative, information has been arranged in a five-column format, beginning with the first column, date of death.
Basic information—name, age, and home state—forms the second column.
In the third column, we list the student’s home school and education abroad program (sometimes the same, but often not). We include “student status,” i.e. whether the student was in high school, undergrad, graduate school, post-doc, or between programs. When this information is available, we identify the type of program the student was on. We also noted what country the program was located in.
In the fourth column, we identify location of death (not always the same as country of study). We also indicate cause of death, including a brief narrative and news links.
Adding an “About this student” column was a late inclusion. However, without it we’d become concerned that a neutral reader might see these students as sad stories, but not necessarily track their deaths as a tragedy for America. Many of these students were deeply thoughtful and kind, on their way to productive, even brilliant lives.
What challenges did PSA encounter?
Relying on news stories poses all sorts of difficulties. But it is the only source of information currently available to the public, so this is what we used.
Stories of education abroad death can be hard to find. For one thing, most deceased education abroad students die one-at-a-time. This means that the death of a student rarely generates more than a day or two of news, and this coverage is generally local, not national.
Older news is hard to find. We think we were able to track the majority of education abroad deaths within the past decade or so. Pre-Internet stories were not reliably available. And even links to stories that Ros had found during her early searches were occasionally no longer active.
News stories can be inaccurate. We found this to be particularly true when reporting was based on the earliest published information, where that original version was incomplete or inaccurate.
News stories can be inconsistent. In this case, our best guess is that later reporting contradicted early because of fact-checks. However, one noteworthy distinction is that local reporting (from the place where death occurred) sometimes differed from U.S.-based reporting, with local reports focused on community knowledge of location specific risks.
News stories can be incomplete. We found this to be especially true with two categories: “Student Status” and “Cause of Death.”
Why was “student status” a challenging category?
Journalists usually distinguish whether a student is a high schooler or grad student. Most often, a newly deceased adolescent is reported to have been traveling with his/her home school, a religious organization, or an independent program provider. In contrast, a newly deceased graduate student is reported to have been conducting research or attending a conference.
However, with undergraduate students, journalists don’t necessarily track that a student may have been from University W, but studying with Program X, or Professor Y, or even independently enrolled in foreign University Z.
Most students, parents and reporters believe undergraduate student travel programs to be synonymous with “study abroad.” However, to the field of international educators, this is not accurate. Education abroad professionals distinguish between study abroad and education abroad.
One of the reasons for this public misunderstanding is that undergraduate education abroad program options are vast. Yet, all of these options may appear on the home school’s website and at recruiting forums, often with the promise of academic credit. This can create the impression that all programs are connected to the home school, or at least have undergone vetting by the home school.
Until something goes terribly wrong, families will not comprehend that most education abroad programs are not connected to their child’s school, nor have they been evaluated by their school. Too often, it is only after catastrophe that parents comprehend the complicated network that made their child’s education abroad possible.
What is the difference between “study abroad” and “education abroad”?
Study abroad is regarded as for-credit coursework that generally occurs during a student’s undergraduate years. Study abroad can include college or university programs, professor programs, partner programs and independent programs.
Education abroad is a wide umbrella, and includes study abroad, plus non-credit options, such as internships, humanitarian missions and research projects.
Why was “cause of death” a particular challenge?
Again, we were relying on news reports. With the exception of our own children, in no case did we have access to official cause of death information.
How did PSA categorize specific causes of death?
With the help of various content experts, and after a yearlong project working with our student population, we settled on eight cause-of-death categories.
What special considerations did PSA give each cause of death category?
Researchers called epidemiologists generally divide injury-related deaths into two categories, unintentional injury and intentional injury. Unintentional injury is defined as “damage to the body by an external force.”
Drowning, falls and vehicular accidents are usually, though not always, classified as subcategories under unintentional injury. However, in our population, these three types of death occur frequently enough that we gave them their own respective categories.
The remaining unintentional injury deaths form their own category. Examples of unintentional injury death include accidental overdose, exposure to weather, fire, and natural disaster. To the extent that news accounts suggest that inadequate treatment played a role in death, we note this in our narrative.
Intentional injury includes homicide and suicide. We define homicide as “intentional harm of one human being to another.” In our population, homicide occurs as a result of crime, terrorism or civil unrest.
Suicide is rarely disclosed, presumably at the request of the family. From 2000-2017, we have one confirmed suicide.
When available, illness is separated by pre-existing condition versus acute illness. Again, to the extent that news accounts suggest inadequate treatment as a contributor to death, we note that in our narrative.
The “Not Available” category has four sub-categories. Cause of death is: not disclosed by the family; not reported by the press; not known; or speculated on, but with no definitive voice.
Finally, as we worked with PSA’s data, we recognized within Not Available a subcategory we’ve separated into its own group. When a bereaved family believes their child died from one cause, while the host country and/or the education abroad program maintains another, we consider cause of death to be in dispute. For such students, we list cause as “Disputed,” followed by two (or more) potential causes.
One of the reasons why we believe this group requires its own category is that, in all cases examined thus far, the bereaved family believes their child died from intentional injuries inflicted by another human being—in other words, homicide (by any number of means). In contrast, the host country, and sometimes the education abroad program, maintains cause of death to be unintentional injury.
Is there any information PSA did not include in death narratives?
We did not include the possible role of alcohol or drugs in our narratives. We believe this information has been used for too long to blame the victim, shame families into silence, and exempt programs from responsible self-examination.
That said, for the purpose of our own data collection, our Excel spreadsheet maintains this information. Furthermore, with some students, it was impossible to find news stories that did not focus on alcohol, drugs, and their alleged role. So this information may be available in our news links.
In making PSA’s death data public, what has been our greatest concern?
Initially, we worried about repercussions from the education abroad industry. However, gradually we’ve grown confident in the simple rightness of our goal, transparency.
At the same time, we’ve become more concerned that publishing this information may cause further pain for already bereaved families, especially with regard to cause of death.
Why has cause of death been such a specific concern?
When a child leaves home for education abroad, he or she is usually quite happy, and the entire family has high expectations. A joyful return is anticipated, even expected, with child-as-student filled with interesting stories and new learning.
Instead, there’s sudden, often violent, death.
Since student death happens far from home, there will likely be a struggle to get the body returned, and even more, to get a thorough accounting of what happened. While the U.S. embassy may be involved in death notification, it is the host country that will conduct whatever investigation (if any) takes place, while the student’s education abroad program may be the main communicator. In other words, several institutional entities may be involved with post-mortality protocol, each with distinct interests.
Meanwhile, for suddenly bereaved families, one question, How did my child die?, runs on a continuous loop. Parents are desperate for truth, as in facts. They are looking for logic and meaning. In this context, opinions will never substitute for honesty.
If parents think authorities are being less than 100% transparent, every instinct will be alarmed, and one question—How?—will spin into thousands.
Who was with her? What had he been told? Where were her teachers, her friends, and any authorities? When did he know he would most certainly die? Why did I let her leave home? How did he feel at the moment of death?
Ros and I have traveled this hard loop over many years, and we always land in the same place: no matter the answers, Ravi and Thomas never come home. They are no longer living, breathing children. They have become memory. What remains of them is story—a beautiful life, a horrible death. And now, that narrative lives inside us.
Learning to simultaneously hold the beauty and horror of their lives has been a relentless task. Gradually, Ros and I have built a new relationship with our sons. Beginning to end, they have been taken inside us, even as we realize this new relationship is not only with our deceased child, but also with our own living self.
The rest of this life is the hardest work we’ll ever do. Mapping life to death to life to death, over and over again, ours is a deeply personal, nearly sacrosanct journey, as we build a complex, nuanced connection with our deceased child and the world that took him. There is no rainbow moment where the truth of what happened gets easier. Reality only gets clearer.
In publishing PSA’s death data, what if we make more painful a bereaved parent’s process of grief? What if we are inaccurate? What if we emphasize certain details? Or gloss over others? What if we use a “wrong” word? A strong word where a tender word might be better? Or a tender word where a strong word might be better? Might simply including these students in our dataset be too much for some families?
Especially with death narratives based on news stories, the possibilities for misstep have felt innumerable.
Given our concerns, why is PSA sharing this information anyway?
We believe that most parent-survivors are ultimately motived by one common goal: This cannot happen to another family!
Stopping preventable deaths is about understanding incident patterns. And we believe there are patterns of death and injury during education abroad. Moreover, we believe these death and injury patterns are unlike patterns of death and injury on home campuses.
With PSA’s data, we hope to advance the conversation and motivate specific action on the part of education abroad professionals, their supporting institutions and organizations, global health specialists, injury prevention researchers, and state and federal authorities.
Why is transparency important to all student safety issues and urgently needed now?
America prioritizes her students; they are America’s future.
Ros and I grew up imagining this two-part statement to be true. It was only after Ravi and Thomas’s death that I realized the second part is true—probably not the first.
Sexual assault. Hazing. Gun violence. Safe and adequate student housing. Student debt. Under-training and subsequent under-employment.
In doing the work of PSA, Ros and I have met other communities of survivor students and families. We’ve learned their stories and noted the similarities. They, too, believed the safety of students to be America’s highest priority. They, too, have come to believe that this is not the country we are.
From our vantage, it appears that the wellbeing of American commerce supersedes the wellbeing of American students. And so, we wonder what rights our children-as-learners ever had? Surely when the needs of students collide with the needs of business, students rarely win.
A broad hard conversation about America’s priorities is long overdue. With epidemiologists, student health and campus safety experts framing death and injury prevention strategies, and impacted students and families as honored stakeholders, precisely what is at risk must never again be forgotten.
A final note to bereaved families, survivor students, and education abroad professionals:
PSA’s death data is based on news stories as primary source information. Relying on media can impact accuracy and detail.
Where we have gotten information wrong, please contact us. We will do our best to add, delete, and amend.