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Nonprofits seek safer travel for students

Wed., June 8, 2011

The parents of a Minnesota teenager who died while on a trip to Japan arranged by a Spokane company have created two nonprofit groups to encourage safer overseas student travel.

Sheryl and Allen Hill have launched ClearCause Foundation and ClearCause Coalition, both focused on efforts to ensure safer travel for students and exchange program participants.

The foundation’s goal, in part, is to raise tax-deductible donations while the second nonprofit, ClearCause Coalition, will push for changes in travel industry practices and government policies, Sheryl Hill said.

Tyler Hill, the couple’s 16-year-old son, had Type 1 diabetes and died in 2007 after climbing Mount Fuji while on a trip arranged by Spokane’s Ambassadors Group. The company arranges travel overseas and provides students guided educational tours.

Later the Hills filed suit, alleging negligence on Ambassadors’ part. The suit was dismissed in 2009 when the Hills accepted a no-fault settlement.

Ambassadors Group fully endorses the goals of the Hills, said company VP of Marketing Meredith Banka.

In an email, she added: “We believe the impact of international student travel is valuable for all students, even those with pre-existing medical conditions.

“We take extensive precautions to ensure that all pre-existing conditions are disclosed prior to travel and that proper physician approval is obtained,” she said, adding travelers and student families bear the chief obligation to follow proper medical protocols.

The Hills say their ongoing effort includes three broad goals:

• Stronger federal rules that would ensure safer overseas youth travel and study-abroad programs.

• Creation of a rapid crisis-response system that lets young travelers report concerns or problems while overseas.

• A new federal database of incidents reported during overseas youth trips or exchange studies, in order to have an accurate scorecard on the safety record of travel companies.

No agency keeps track on a national level of health, safety or security incidents affecting college students studying abroad. The U.S. State Department tracks risks to American travelers, and it lists guidelines for safe student travel.

“This is a self-regulated industry,” said Sheryl Hill. “We want our children to travel safe and protected, and when bad things happen, we want federal protective measures to rule how things should come down and how the problem should be addressed.”

One example cited by Hill was the recent Paris apartment house fire in which five people were killed, including the roommate of a University of Washington student, who was severely injured.

“We get comment from parents about their children being housed in places that have no fire escapes or working smoke alarms,” she said.

She said the court settlement leaves her unable to make specific comments about the People to People Student Ambassador program and how it conducts business. But she said, “My son’s death in Japan was totally preventable.”

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