Safety and Risk Management Training for Faculty Leading Study Abroad: Part 1

illustration of an academic assignment

May 2010. After some initial controversy over FERPA and student privacy, a set of documents from Laramie County Community College were made public, prompting a media flurry and providing a cautionary case of how one college may have mishandled a response to the suicidal behaviors of a student while leading a 2008 class trip to Costa Rica. The incident raises questions for institutions of higher education, including what training to provide for faculty and other trip leaders who are taking students abroad, so that trip leaders know how to respond in the event of an emergency and who to contact.

The Chronicle of Higher Education noted that before Eastern Illinois University faculty members can teach courses overseas, they are required to complete a workshop on risk management and student health and safety. At Academic Impressions, we followed up with Wendy Williamson, director of study abroad at Eastern Illinois University, and Brent Barker, the University of Washington’s travel security and information manager, to learn:

  • What a preparatory workshop should cover
  • How best to prepare faculty to respond effectively to health and safety incidents during study abroad

The Safety Workshop for Faculty

Both Eastern Illinois University and the University of Washington require that faculty or study abroad program directors complete a several-hour safety and risk management workshop prior to the trip. The University of Washington also requires that faculty take a refresher after 3 years.

Barker and Williamson suggest covering:

  • The various incidents that could occur (student conduct issues, mental health, physical emergencies)
  • Brief them on how to find medical resources through your international insurance carrier and through the U.S. Embassy
  • Help each professor develop an emergency contact list for their program, and make sure that it includes contact information for the nearest Embassy or Consulate, the local versions of 911
  • What resources and support are available from the institution

“They may walk out of that meeting mildly alarmed, but well-prepared,” Williamson remarks. “Make sure they know that we’re in this as a team, that they have support and they will not be alone if something does happen.”

Finally, an effective training workshop, like an effective course, requires more than an “information download”; it’s best to walk your faculty through hypothetical scenarios, let them problem-solve solutions, and give feedback. How will they respond if a student is injured? If a student is sexually assaulted? If a student attempts suicide? If a student’s roommate reports a concerning behavior?  Give the faculty the opportunity to problem-solve and apply what they are learning.

Identify One Point Person

“Make sure they know immediately who to contact at your institution,” Barker suggests. Designate one point person on campus who can be on-call, 24/7, to manage response for any incident that occurs overseas with a student or faculty member. And make sure that your point person is prepared to bring the right professionals from counseling, judicial affairs, media relations, or other offices into the conversation swiftly if needed.

Identify Specific Intervention Triggers

Barker adds that it is critical to identify specific triggers for seeking intervention, and to convey those triggers to faculty in a way that is brief and easy to remember. Barker suggests two possible approaches, which can be used in tandem.

One is to have a tiered threat-level system and suggest specific procedures for each level. For example, the University of Washington has developed a Yellow/Orange/Red system for helping faculty assess what level of response a particular situation requires:

  • A Yellow situation is a minor case, one that the professor can resolve without assistance. For example, if a student is homesick, that is Yellow.
  • An Orange situation is more serious but does not involve an immediate medical emergency. For example, a student may be suffering a serious depression that does not appear to be lifting. In this case, the professor can serve as the primary responder but can contact the institution to put the student in touch with campus resources, or can contact the insurance firm to connect the student with local resources.
  • A Red situation is a medical emergency. Perhaps there has been an injury or a suicide attempt. In this case, the professor knows to contact emergency responders first, and secondly the point person on campus, so that the university can bring resources in to help.

Barker stresses that it is important for faculty to contact the university at Level Orange. That way, if the situation does worsen, the point person on campus has already been briefed.

Beyond this Yellow/Orange/Red system however, it is useful to provide faculty with a shortlist of questions that can help them assess a situation. A ‘Yes’ to any of these questions would be a trigger for them to notify the institution. Barker helps faculty learn 4 quick questions that they can ask:

  • Do they feel the student’s behavior is out of the ordinary?
  • Do they feel the behavior requires input from a professional?
  • Do they feel it is getting worse?
  • Do they feel the behavior is putting anyone’s health or safety at risk?