Risk Management and Student Travel in the Time of Trump, the Zika Virus, and Terrorism

Summer 2017

By Ross Wehner

My biggest lesson in risk management came two decades ago, when I was watching my students cross a glacier in the Pacific Northwest. I was working as an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and students were leading their own rope teams at the end of a month-long trip. The teams were focused on crossing crevasses, which ranged from 1- to 2-feet wide. As the students stepped over the cracks in the glacier, they peered into the inky darkness, mesmerized by the sound of rushing water below. But what they did not notice as they advanced up the glacier was a nearby collection of rocks on a cliff heated by the morning sun, which stood out on the snowy glacier. Those rocks caught my attention. I knew it would be highly unlikely for students to fall deeply enough into a crevasse to become injured, given the careful rope work I was seeing and the physics involved. But those rocks, which were starting to fall, were lethal. The crevasses were obvious, huge, and terrifying. But the rocks were harder for the students to see even though they were the real danger. In risk management terms, the crevasses were a perceived danger that prevented students from seeing an actual danger.

This glacier story is playing out today, in larger terms, as independent schools explore learning and risk in an increasingly uncertain world. On the one hand, independent schools are pushing the boundaries of a revolution in learning as classrooms become more student-driven, experiential, and globally connected. As part of this shift, students of all ages are heading off campus as never before for a growing number of field trips, service-learning days, internships, project-based courses, and travel programs. On the other hand, we live in a time of intense fear about new and unprecedented risks that are compounded by around-the-clock media coverage. Like waves crashing onto the beach, a succession of fears about the Ebola and Zika viruses, terrorism, and most recently, the world’s geopolitical balance with President Trump in office, have washed over us the last two years. In the process, we have lost our sense of what is perceived and actual danger.

Last year, boards at many independent schools cancelled student travel to any countries that were classified as having a Level 2 Zika alert by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In one fell swoop, Central and South America and the Caribbean became a no-go zone for students. A recent email thread from the Global Education Benchmark Group (GEBG), a consortium of nearly 200 independent schools, revealed that some member schools are having a harder time than usual filling popular global programs. The future of learning demands that schools open the world to students. But the present risk landscape is making school leaders, parents, and boards shut down. School leaders are saying “no” to off-campus learning in a time when we need to be saying “yes.”

Details in the Data

How should school leaders navigate the delicate calculus between learning and risk? Some independent schools have taken what seems like a sensible approach. They have hired risk management assessors, talked to legal counsel, and listened to parents. But the result has often been a flood of hard-to-navigate information, a growing sense of fear, and a resulting state of paralysis and indecision.

An alternative approach, which schools already use in admissions, marketing, and almost every other area of operations, is to use data to put together a plan. Data helps us distinguish between perceived and actual risks. Unfortunately, there is remarkably little data on injuries and fatalities in the $15-billion study abroad industry, which each year sends an estimated 313,000 American students abroad.

Under pressure from the U.S. Congress and parent advocacy groups, universities and insurance companies are beginning to work together to share data. But still, one of the best data sources on the actual risks confronting students abroad is the U.S. State Department’s website on U.S. citizen deaths overseas. At World Leadership School (WLS), we have used this database for years to design our global programs against actual risks. The data is remarkably consistent year after year. Based on the last decade of State Department data and after eliminating what we considered non-pertinent data (countries too dangerous for student travel, and categories such as homicide, suicide, drug-related, motorcycle accidents, etc.), we have defined the most lethal risks to our students:

▸ Highway travel: 33%

▸ Drowning: 27%

▸ Other accident: 27%

▸ Boat, plane, train travel: 9%

▸ Vehicle accident-pedestrian: 3%

▸ Disaster: 1%

▸ Terrorism: 0%

We have also analyzed other sources of data, including a Critical Incident Database maintained by the Forum on Education Abroad, whose 650 institutional members collectively represent 90 percent of U.S. students who study abroad; a private database maintained by Depart Smart, an organization seeking to bring greater transparency and safety standards; and a study of claims of K­–12 study abroad programs from United Educators, an insurance company. From these additional sources, we’ve concluded that alcohol and sexual assault are additional serious risks.

Making the Distinction

It’s interesting to note that Zika, global terrorism, and geopolitical instability do not appear in our data, even though they are top of mind for many school leaders and parents today. Of course, whatever is happening now will manifest itself in future data. But consider the impact of the media on how we perceived the risk: There were thousands of stories about Zika before this year’s Olympics in Brazil, but almost no coverage of the fact that not a single person contracted Zika during the Olympics, according to the World Health Organization. And what about other tropical diseases such as dengue, malaria, Chagas, leishmaniasis, and chikungunya that have existed for years in popular tropical travel locations like Costa Rica? Have we forgotten about these diseases amid all the sensationalism around the Zika virus?

Clearly, schools need to monitor geopolitical instabilities and track diseases. But I would argue that media coverage has caused schools to overemphasize perceived dangers over the biggest actual hazards confronting students traveling abroad. This makes effective risk management more difficult, and the problem is only getting worse. The only seeming certainty today is that our world will become increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). Today more than ever, we need to use data to separate perceived versus actual risks and we need to rely on proven risk management principles. Here are the three principles we use at WLS.

Principle 1

Risk management, at its core, is a continuous conversation that happens at all levels of a school at once. Good risk management results from conversations between people, not a complicated list of hard-to-remember rules and procedures. At WLS, which runs travel programs for about 700 students per year, we use a tool called Analyze-Manage-Prepare (AMP) to organize the conversation. This tool is similar to ones at NOLS, Outward Bound, and most other outdoor education organizations. Each morning during our programs, student-leader teams hold AMP sessions in which they ask: What are the risks to analyze today? How will we manage them? And what should we do now to prepare? Students need to practice their risk management skills daily to develop situational awareness for risks that may be new to them.

These AMP conversations need to happen at all levels of the school. AMP conversations should happen among trip leaders as they make important decisions about their trip itinerary, talk to third-party vendors, and prepare for travel. These conversations should happen among administrators as they approve programs and decide how to train trip leaders. Even boards can use AMP, which helps spark productive conversations around questions like: “What are the actual risks and how might we manage them better?”

AMP should also happen with parents, especially during the parent nights when trip leaders recruit students for their programs. During this critical meeting, trip leaders talk about all the amazing things students will do and learn on a certain trip. But they also have a duty to disclose activities and associated risks, how the school is managing the risks, and how parents and students should prepare accordingly. This way, parents can make an informed decision about their child joining the trip.

In my experience, schools do not spend enough time on these critical conversations before, during, and after an off-campus experience. Trip leaders need time to train, get organized, and design learning goals for a program. Trip leaders and students need time to learn, form a strong group dynamic, and set clear behavioral expectations. After a program, students need to reflect on and demonstrate their learning, and teachers and school leaders need to debrief, review evaluations, and improve the program.

Principle 2

Keep it simple.

The community-wide conversation about risk and learning allows schools to develop simple and easy-to-remember risk management protocols that evolve and improve each year with community feedback. WLS uses a system called Accepted Practices, which was pioneered by NOLS back in the 1990s, whereby our trip leaders examine, discuss, and update the protocols for our biggest risks. We keep each accepted practice to a single page (though highway travel, our largest risk, is an exception at two pages). Experiential educators will never remember the contents of a manual, but they can follow an accepted practice that they have helped to build. Simple checklists, filled out before getting on a bus, can remind instructors of the accepted practice.

We also use a tool called Safety Guidelines, which is a list of 10 things that should never happen on a WLS program (guideline No. 5, for instance, is “Ride in the back of a pickup truck or in any vehicle that has not been hired specifically by WLS”). Almost every accident at WLS over the last decade, and there have not been many, was the result of a direct violation of one of these 10 rules. A simple list makes them much easier for our instructors, faculty, and students to remember.

Principle 3

Education and safety go hand in hand.

When schools increase the educational value of an off-campus program, they reduce risks. Faculty and students behave differently when they embark on a clearly defined learning journey (as opposed to a fun trip). At WLS, we have developed a model we call The Global Learning Phases to describe the shift that schools make as they evolve away from the old model of faculty-led travel programs (Phase 1) toward a future of institutionalized off-campus partnerships that are integrated with learning (Phase 3). The acid test of a Phase 3 school is that students do not sense the “seam” in learning as they venture off campus. Phase 3 schools develop driving questions to guide off-campus learning, and build curriculum for before, during, and after the experience. They make plenty of time for reflection during travel. Phase 3 schools often have schedules that include interim periods for extended off-campus learning. Others assess off-campus learning through demonstrations of learning and rubrics. The new assessment models proposed by the Mastery Transcript Consortium will make it much easier for schools (and college admissions officers) to understand student growth across all areas of the school experience—including what happens off campus. When learning is integrated, risks are easier to manage.

The Myth of Total Safety

Whenever we work with a school on risk management, we end with a discussion of what we call “relaxed awareness.” It is similar to the notion of “situational awareness,” most famously used in combat, which refers to a leader’s ability to identify, process, and comprehend critical information unfolding around their team during a mission. But we like the term relaxed awareness because leading students is a round-the-clock job from which we can never disengage. Leading a student program requires sustained focus, and it should be joyful and relaxing, not stressful. The best way for trip leaders to cultivate relaxed awareness is to be so organized and well prepared in advance of a trip that they feel calm and confident when it starts. This sense of calm spreads to the students and allows everyone to notice things happening in the environment that can be hard to spot. We train leaders to use the probability versus consequence tool when scanning an environment.

Most beginning leaders focus on risks that have a relatively low consequence and, frankly, often are wonderful ways for our students to learn. But most serious study abroad accidents happen in the so-called high-consequence, low-probability quadrant. These are hard-to-spot risks that carry lethal consequences: a hammer left on a beam above a group of working students, a driver who is sleepy, or a rock falling from a cliff above. These are the risks we need to train our leaders and students to spot.

It’s important to note that while we can manage nearly all risks, we can never guarantee safety. We need to stop assuring parents about safety, and instead talk about the inherent risks of off-campus learning and how these risks will be managed. Mike Davis, head of Colorado Academy in Denver, wrote a blunt but honest letter to parents whose children traveled to Quebec in the months following the January mosque shooting—and not a single parent ended up cancelling. “The world shows us time and time again that ‘safe’ is a relative term, and what we may have assumed was a safe destination yesterday may not feel the same today,” Davis wrote. “In fact, we really cannot use the word safe in the context of experiential learning and international travel. Risks abound in this world—not only abroad, but even in the city of Denver. Ultimately, parents must exercise the final judgment on their children’s participation in these programs; only parents can determine their comfort with the inherent risk and the protocols we have outlined.”

Classroom learning has never had to change so quickly and so completely, and independent schools are helping lead the charge. In the future of learning, as students venture off campus, risk and failure will be an intrinsic part of their daily experience. It’s time for school leaders to become professional risk managers who can distinguish between perceived and actual dangers and lead a productive conversation across the school community about risk and learning.

Sidebar: Turning Data Into Action

What do you do with the data once you’ve mined it? Here’s what we concluded from the data we’ve collected from the U.S State Department, Forum on Education Abroad, and United Educators and strategies for how to address it.

A third of the total risk to students happens during highway travel,
and another 10 percent happens on boats, planes, and trains.
Try to build programs that minimize in-country student travel, especially in countries with weak tort law, chaotic traffic, and poor highway systems. Consider the idea of less is more: Can we go deeper with our learning if we spend more time in fewer locations? Develop careful procedures around highway travel.

More than a quarter of the total risk to students is drowning. Take swimming and other water activities very seriously. At World Leadership School, we rarely allow students to go deeper than their chests in rivers and oceans, and we never allow diving. When swimming, our instructors follow clear protocols and use throw ropes, life jackets, etc. We only raft on water that is Class III and below.

The remaining 30 percent of risk is a mixture of fires, falls, sickness, and pedestrian travel. Students should be aware of fire evacuation routes in hotels and especially homestays. Train leaders to spot hard-to-see, high-consequence situations, such as paths that lead alongside steep drops in terrain. Know where medical facilities are located in the event of student sickness, and be proactive about getting students to a doctor when sick. The smallest two categories include natural disasters (1 percent) and terrorism (0.5 percent).

Alcohol changes everything. The Forum on Education Abroad’s data identifies alcohol, along with poor judgment, as the leading factors in all incidents. More than three quarters of all incidents happened during free time periods.

Make it clear to students that taking alcohol/drugs while traveling is a serious danger and means immediate evacuation. Faculty should also operate under a clear-expectations agreement, which includes no alcohol consumption during a travel program. Carefully screen students, and set behavioral expectations with parents and students before departing. Review nighttime supervision protocols, especially in urban areas where the risks of student alcohol abuse are higher. Limit free time.

Sexual assault is a hidden iceberg. United Educators reports that 62 percent of their K–12 study abroad claims between 2004–2013 were for sexual assault. Of the sexual assault claims, nearly 40 percent happened in a homestay. At the same time, today’s students are increasingly exploring questions of gender, identity, and sexuality.

Reinforce behavioral expectations when a trip begins. Provide clear training for trip leaders and students around sexual assault. Carefully screen and train any homestay families, even in exchange programs with long-time partner schools. Run debriefs, and group dynamics activities, in order to help students communicate telltale signs of a potentially bad situation. Train students to act if they are in a situation that makes them uncomfortable.

Ross Wehner

Ross Wehner is founder of World Leadership School in Boulder, Colorado, and TeachUNITED, both of which partner with K–12 schools to transform learning and build next-generation leaders.