article

07.13.09

The Perils of Teen Travel

Parents pay big bucks to send their kids on far-flung summer trips. But as Kathleen Kingsbury reports, the reality may involve robbery, sex predators, and even death.

Studying abroad is supposed to be an adventure. It’s also, however, normally supposed to involve some sort of shelter from the elements, be it a far-flung dorm or a homestay with a local family. So when Mary Ellen Kostigen shipped her 16-year-old son, Aaron, off to South Africa to do some college application-boosting community service two years ago, she didn’t bother to ask if he’d have to build his own house.

“My understanding is that they arrived to literally a pile of boards, nails, and straw,” Kostigen recalls. “There was no electricity, no toilet.”

Then Aaron was robbed not once, but three times before he alerted his parents. “He didn’t want to cause trouble, but the [thief] pulled a knife on him and took his iPod and wallet,” his mother says of the third time. “And it still took me about 150 phone calls to get him home.”

“The college student chaperone with them was charging $20 a day to get on the prepaid bus,” says one parent. “He was using the extra cash to buy beer.”

Welcome abroad! This summer, as thousands of American students traverse the globe in pursuit of a wider worldview, some of them will find that their study-abroad programs are remarkably hands-off once they arrive at their destination. And while the vast majority of these kids are in college, some student-travel companies now offer options for kids as young as 11. For such kids, whose sole experience living outside their families' homes has been summer camp, being dropped with few boundaries into a foreign country can be wild.

“Accidents, of course, happen,” says Ellen Bernfield, a Minneapolis mother of three whose eldest daughter, then a high-school junior, went to northern Africa on a community-service trip last August. “What I wasn’t expecting was a 3 a.m. phone call telling me my 16-year-old broke her leg riding a motorcycle in Morocco—she didn’t even have a license in Minnesota.”

Case in point: A group of 17 University of Washington students who traveled to Ghana two years ago had their five-week trip cut a week short when eight participants had to be evacuated on chartered flights from the West African nation after what was thought to be an outbreak of malaria. The same group complained about insufficient food, illness, and irrelevant lectures, charges backed up by an independent report that was completed after their return to Seattle. In the same report, a UW faculty chaperone alleged the tour operator had brainwashed the students and that group meetings eventually resembled lynch mobs.

There is no government body that oversees either teen travel agencies or college programs. That means that although most students return safe and sound, there is no clearinghouse tracking injuries, assaults, robberies, or even fatalities students suffer overseas. Schools, for their part, rarely sponsor such trips to avoid liability issues. It falls primarily to parents to ensure that their children are in safe hands while studying abroad. “It is really a commercial issue,” says John Hishmeh, executive director of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, an organization that accredits high-school academic-exchange programs. “The only remedies are usually after something has gone awry.”

That means it is imperative that parents do as much research as possible upfront. Beyond questions about lodging, finances, or supervision, parents should understand in detail how transportation or health issues will be handled, and who will pay for an early departure if the trip is cut short for any reason. The most important question to ask ahead of time, Hishmeh says, is: Who do I call if I think something is wrong?

Such information could have helped the mother of Milford, Massachusetts. teen David Gerard, who found himself severely ill this summer on a tour of Greece, and called his mother asking her to put €5,000 in his bank account so he could be treated. After an alarming few days, the female decided that Gerard’s grandmother should fly to Athens to retrieve the recent high-school grad, who lost about 24 pounds from what was likely the stomach flu or a food-borne illness. He is now recovering, but Gerard’s mother Michelle told her local newspaper this week, “He was worried that he wasn't going to get out of Greece alive.”

Fatalities are rare, but they do happen. Taylor Crane, a 16-year-old from West Chester, Pennsylvania, was playing tag when he fell to his death two years in an abandoned mine shaft. The teenager had volunteered to work with underprivileged children in Guanajuato, Mexico. As part of the game, Crane jumped without knowing the mine was on the other side. He fell about 500 feet into water contaminated with arsenic and lead. He suffocated.

Last month, his parents filed a wrongful-death suit in a Philadelphia court against the two tour operators that organized the trip, alleging that the shaft had no warning signs or railings. "Obviously, we're devastated by this loss, and it's difficult to imagine life without our son," Christopher Crane, Taylor’s father, said at the time of his death. "But we're so proud of Taylor and what he was doing down here.”

Much more often, students simply find themselves in uncomfortable situations due to cultural differences. In places like Latin America and Italy, for example, young American women may find men in other countries more aggressive. “In Florence, I was touched constantly,” says Mandy Martin, a New York City high-school senior who studied overseas last July. “It wasn’t exactly sexual harassment, but it was close.”

But students have also been known to bring trouble upon themselves. In recent years, American teenagers in Europe have been beaten up or harassed after showing too much national pride, particularly over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Usually, however, the issue is alcohol or drugs. Take, for instance, the group of drunken American students who decided to cram themselves into a German elevator, despite a sign warning of a three-person weight limit. “No one spoke German, and they weren’t paying attention,” says Bob Aalberts, a University of Nevada faculty member who was supervising the trip and who also conducts research on overseas programs. “Well, the car plummeted several stories before an emergency cable kicked in. They could have been killed.”

Aalberts advises a litmus test of common sense whenever heading overseas. “Overseas study is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child,” he says. “But you have to remember that there is an added risk.” That added risk makes it even more important to check out a tour operator’s safety record and financial solvency, to buy necessary insurance, and to judge a destination country’s political climate. In 2006, for instance, American students had to be evacuated from Beirut after a violent conflict erupted between Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants and Israel.

Sometimes this risk comes from the very adults who are meant to be supervising. When high-school senior Alice Tollman went on a tour of China last year with her Washington, D.C. school, her mother received almost daily emails asking for money transfers into her bank account. Mom decided to investigate.

“It turned out that the college student chaperone with them was charging $20 a day to get on the prepaid bus,” says Molly Tollman. “He was using the extra cash to buy beer. This was the person I trusted with my kid for three weeks.”

Kathleen Kingsbury is a writer based in New York. She's a contributor to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health, and education since 2005.