US STUDENTS AMBUSHED
JANUARY 19, 1998
Students and faculty on a study-abroad program from St. Mary's College were attacked near Santa Lucia Gotzumalgrapa, Guatemala, a center for Indian art and culture near the Pacific coast. The group was robbed then five female students were raped. The attack raised safety questions about study abroad programs. Suspects in Guatemala have been arrested and the US State Department is investigating.
PHIL PONCE: Last Friday, thirteen students and three faculty members were on a tour sponsored by St. Mary's, a small college in Maryland. They had just returned from a study tour when they were ambushed by four gunmen on a major highway and forced onto this deserted road. The attack happened in the afternoon near Santa Lucia Gotzumalguapa, a center of Indian art and culture near the Pacific Coast. All of the passengers were held at gunpoint for more than an hour. Each was robbed. Then five female students were taken to a nearby field and raped. Those victims were treated at a Guatemalan hospital and returned to the United States on Saturday. The others returned last night.
LARRY VOTE, Acting Provost, St. Mary's College: Our first and most important task is to see to their needs. We understand that every effort is being made by our State Department to address this horrendous crimes.
PHIL PONCE: Students at the 1500-person college expressed their concern.
MALE STUDENT: I think it's really shocking. We didn't really have any idea that anything like that had happened.
PHIL PONCE: Earlier today the president of St. Mary's said the school will review its program in Guatemala.
JANE MARGARET O'BRIEN, President, St. Mary's College: I think the study abroad program is a very important part of our educational program. Obviously, we will study from start to finish all the events. When we receive the police report, we will also know more about whether or not this was a very isolated event or part of a trend. I think we can also be of counsel to the U.S. embassy in Guatemala.
PHIL PONCE: The college is offering all students around-the-clock counseling. This was the first incident in three years that St. Mary's has been sending students to Guatemala. While helping to renovate a school in Washington as part of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, President Clinton expressed confidence the assailants would be brought to justice. REPORTER: Is there anything the United States can do to safeguard U.S. citizens down there?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, first of all, this a terrible thing, what happened over there. And I have a lot of concerns, obviously, for the victims and their families. But we're persuaded that the government is taking the appropriate action and it is a--where they were there have been some difficulties, but I think that the government is doing what it can. We've been in touch with them. The main thing we need to do now is be concerned with the victims and their families and do whatever we can to minimize such things happening in the future.
PHIL PONCE: Late this afternoon a faculty member who witnessed the attack continued to defend the notion of study abroad.
JORGE ROGACHEVSKY, Study Trip Coordinator: I think, in general, I can say that as an educational institution we have to be committed to presenting our students with information about the world. They need to know about the world, and knowledge is not just a matter of textual information. Knowledge is a matter of experience, of feeling, presence, kind of in a human contact with others so that you can develop understanding. So I think that the worst kind of message that we can derive from this is the sense that we have to, you know, insulate ourselves and we cannot reach out to the world. I am, as an educator, I am committed to the notion that by reaching out, by making bonds of understanding is how people reduce conflict.
PHIL PONCE: This is the latest in a series of recent incidents involving American students abroad. In March of 1996 four American students died in a bus accident in India. In July of 1996, a female student studying in Japan charged the father of her host family with raping her. In 1997, 12 Indiana students were temporarily trapped in political strife in Cambodia. In May of 1997, in Ecuador, the wife of a tour director was shot and killed by robbers while she was with a group of students from the University of New Mexico.
PHIL PONCE: Now, more on safety and studying abroad. John Sommer is the dean of academic studies abroad at the School for International Training, World Learning in Brattleboro, Vermont. The school has 55 study abroad programs in 40 countries worldwide. Terry Bigalke is director of the World Affairs Center at Beloit College in Wisconsin, which has 25 programs in 22 countries. And gentlemen, welcome.
Mr. Sommer, is it getting more dangerous to be a student from the United States studying abroad?
JOHN SOMMER, School for International Training: (Manchester, NH) I don't think so. We are certainly hearing about more incidents, as has just been recounted here. But if you also look at the numbers of students who are going abroad to study, they are also increasing very substantially. There is also a proliferation of sites and locations to which American students are going that traditionally students mainly went to European countries, or perhaps Australia or Japan. And now they're increasingly going to what we have called Third World countries, where there are whole different sets of issues, such as in the Guatemala example. I think that it's terribly important for students to go abroad for a variety of reasons, and it's terribly important and incumbent on us as educators sending students abroad to take the best possible precautions that we can to maximize the possibilities of their safety.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Bigalke, what is your sense of the amount of risk that can be involved?
TERRY BIGALKE, Beloit College: (Chicago) Well, I believe the risk for study abroad is really in many respects no greater than the risk for any kind of travel abroad or really travel within the United States. We are always putting ourselves at risk when we engage in interesting activities. If we wanted to totally avoid risk, we would stay at home. And even then we couldn't totally do that. But I believe that, as John pointed out, we are opening ourselves to perhaps a new kind of challenge by sending more students to less commonly studied parts of the world. Previously, about 2/3 of American students studied in Western Europe. And the numbers now going outside of Western Europe are increasing rather sharply. So it's a new set of issues that we're really dealing with.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Bigalke, to follow up on something you just said, in the United States one might have a sense of the areas that perhaps are riskier than others. How does one know if a particular country is a safe place to go or not? How does a student or a student's parent know?
TERRY BIGALKE: Well, they should always be in touch with the school that is sending the program. And each of those schools is responsible for making its own judgment on whether or not--reasonable judgment on whether or not a site is a safe site for study abroad. We rely on information from State Department advisories, from our own host contacts on the ground, and so at some point we individually as schools sponsoring programs do make a judgment as to whether or not we feel that there are reasonable--the risks are reasonable in sending a student to a study abroad site.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Sommer, in this case, the State Department advisory specifically said that it can be dangerous for groups; it can be dangerous in the daytime; and that groups had been attacked and sexually assaulted and robbed. How does the school know that it's still a good idea to send students to a country where the State Department is issuing that kind of a red flag?
JOHN SOMMER: Well, the State Department has a variety of levels of conditions that they post ranging from very dangerous, you shouldn't go there, to go there but be careful, to everything is just fine. And I think that it's incumbent on us and what we do--my school sends students to 40 countries around the world in all parts of the world. And we try to assess very carefully through their--the folks are on the ground--our academic directors who live and work in those countries and know them well--just what the level of concern would be.
Certainly, if the State Department advisories say don't go or be terribly careful, we would not send students to that country. And we have canceled programs in the past in those kinds of cases. But, by and large, I think that you know which roads are relatively safe to--are safe to travel on, or which roads are definitely not safe. In a case like the ones that have been mentioned on the program earlier, you know that sometimes at night you shouldn't be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or usually at night a lot of places in some countries and cities are unsafe to be. And it's very critical for students going abroad to have a very full orientation at the beginning of their program and repeat it throughout the program. And we all try to do that, I think, as straightforwardly as we can. Some of my students, frankly, complain that we over-terrorize them, tell them that they should be so careful, and they think that we overdo it. But I think there are needs to do that. Another mechanism I might mention is we place many of our students for all of the program and all of our students for at least some of the program with home state families in the overseas setting. And those families generally take very good care of students, perhaps giving them less freedom than our students are accustomed to in this country. But that's also a big help on the safety and security issue. One last thing I just wanted to mention at this point is that we've talked about statistics and incidences overseas, but, as we all know, there are instances of this sort in this country as well, both crimes and attacks on foreign students and things that happen to American students, themselves. So statistically I'd want to look very carefully at whether the record is really less safe overseas than it is in our own country, and I wouldn't want to leap to conclusions about stopping this very critically necessary study abroad on the wrong premises.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Bigalke, do you get a lot of questions from parents who say how safe is it for me to send my daughter or my son to X, Y, or Z country?
TERRY BIGALKE: Yes, I get a lot of questions. And I try to provide parents with my best evaluation of the safety of a program and also to point them in the direction of where they can consult other sources of information. Ultimately, every student and every parent has to make a decision based on their own best judgment about whether or not it's wise to go on a program, or to undertake the particular experience. But I see my role as very critical in trying to help parents and students sort out the relative risks, of the health risks, the risks of traffic accidents, for instance, or in areas of unrest what other kinds of dangers students might face.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Bigalke, speaking of risk, how concerned are universities about potential liability in case a student sues the university if something bad happens to him or her?
TERRY BIGALKE: Well, certainly liability issues are something that colleges and universities are beginning to look at in greater depth related to study abroad programs. But my concern is while we do that and we need to do that, we also need to be careful not to over-react. If all of our decisions in life and certainly in study are driven by our concern for liability, I think we'll always take the very well traveled and very, very presumably safe path. But that is not the way I think that we can expand our minds, our educational horizons most effectively. I think we have to be willing to take reasonable risks in life and certainly as an institution we want to provide our students with experiences that deal with the world in the 21st century, rather than the world in the past, where we were so focused on the safe choices in Western Europe.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Bigalke and Mr. Sommer, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you both.
TERRY BIGALKE: Thank you.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Bigalke and Mr. Sommer, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you both.
TERRY BIGALKE: Thank you.
JOHN SOMMER: Thank you.