8 Investigates

After tragedy, moms demand transparency from study abroad programs

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) -- 8News continues its investigation into college students in danger, disappearing and dying in foreign countries while on a study abroad trip.

On Thursday, after a Virginia mother shared the tragic story of her son's tragic -- and mysterious -- death while studying in the jungles of Peru

8News has found the study abroad industry is largely unregulated. Now, two mothers, Elizabeth Brenner and Ros Thackurdeen, are pushing for transparency after losing their sons.

Thackurdeen says her son, 19-year-old Swarthmore University student Ravi Thackurdeen, had dreamed of a career in public health when he took off to the tropics for a study abroad in Costa Rica. 

He traveled with Duke University's Office of Tropical Studies, now known as the Organization for Tropical Studies -- a program heavily advertised on campus.

However, that dream was shattered when Ravi was swept away in a rip current.

"They called me and told me my son was missing,” Thackurdeen said.

Ros and the rest of the family flew to Costa Rica with little information. They sat on the beach for hours before learning through the coast guard, not the study abroad program, search crews were looking for Ravi's body.

"He was pulled out for about 300 yards from shore screaming, balling, for his life,” she says.

Ravi's dad spotted him.

"My son was lying with eyes wide open, his arms spread apart and looking up to the heavens and he thought he was alive but when he got there he wasn't,” Thackurdeen recalls.

Thackurdeen recalls later learned her son wasn't the first to drown on the program. Students were taken to a beach known for drownings.

"They changed the itinerary to a hotel that had warnings about on its website until today that says it is the most dangerous beach and not a beach for swimming,” Thackurdeen said.

Elizabeth Brenner has a similarly tragic story.

Her son, Thomas Plotkin, a University of Iowa student, was interested in sustainable development.

"He loved to get his hands in the dirt, dig and garden," Brenner said.

Thomas was to receive 16 college credits for study abroad in India with the National Outdoor Leadership School.

"There really were no warning signs for any of us,” Brenner said.

However, Thomas slipped off a steep cliff, falling 300 feet to his death. 

"His left foot slipped he went down and his back-pack weight pulled him over the edge,” she says.

Brenner later learned like in Ravi's case, there had been a change in itinerary and the students had been hiking all day, were hungry and carrying heavy backpacks in terrain unfamiliar to them.

"You know when you take any of those risk factors out maybe he wouldn't have fallen,” Brenner added.

The study abroad industry is estimated to bring in $183 billion a year with more than 300,000 U.S. student traveling overseas each year. Yet, for such a large industry 8News has found there is little oversight, often the programs are run by a private party -- not your child's college. Plus, no one is really tracking deaths, accidents and/or injuries involving students abroad.

"There's no place where all of this information around deaths and injuries gets aggregated, shared, pooled and analyzed in a statistical way," Brenner said.

While it's true college and universities must report campus deaths and assaults, they are not required to disclose most deaths or accidents abroad.

Thackurdeen and Brenner are hoping to change that.

"We believe many of these deaths are preventable,” says Brenner.

They've created a website, Protect Students Abroad,  to educate others. Each started gathering their own death data and found last year, 14 students died while studying abroad.

They're also fighting for federal legislation.

"It is a transparency data bill,” Thackurdeen explains.

If passed, the bill would create national database tracking deaths and injuries. Their hope is to prevent other mothers from suffering the same pain.

"It changes you forever,” says an emotional Brenner.

In meantime both mother’s offer tips to any student or parent considering a study abroad they suggest:

1. Ask about program's safety record and ask them to put it in writing
2. Ask if program has insurance?
3. Ask if they deviate from the itinerary?
4. Have a lawyer look over any waivers before you sign them.
5. Research the company and destination.

8News reached out to both study abroad programs for a statement Friday.

In response to Thomas Plotkin's death, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) said:

“(His) death was a tragic accident that cut short the life of a young man with a promising future. It affected our community deeply, and our thoughts and sympathy remain with his friends and family. NOLS established an instructor award and a scholarship in honor of Tom’s passion for the wilderness.

"A family member brought a suit against NOLS as a result of Thomas’ death. The Federal District Court ruled in NOLS’ favor and, at NOLS’ request, dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice.

NOLS is committed to promoting the physical and emotional well-being of all students. Risk management is taught and practiced on every course and we consistently review and assess our practices and procedures to ensure they are current and fulfill that commitment.”

Duke University's Organization for Tropical Studies did not immediately respond to 8News' request for comment."

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