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School not at fault in study-abroad death

BY GUEST OPINION | OCTOBER 07, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Daily Iowan article "Little oversight exists for study-abroad orgs" (Oct. 4, 2011) includes the death of University of Iowa student Thomas Plotkin as its news peg in a story about potential dangers students face when studying abroad and a lack of government regulation on study-abroad organizations.

Plotkin was traveling on an 80-day trip in India with the National Outdoor Leadership School, which is based in Lander, Wyo. On the 29th day, Plotkin apparently took a wrong step, and witnesses say they saw his ankle buckle before he fell several hundred feet off the trail and presumably died. While all indications point to this being a terrible accident, the article seems to imply that the Leadership School — and a lack of oversight — is at fault rather than the unfortunate capriciousness of nature.

As someone who has studied abroad, is a Leadership School alumnus, and spends a considerable amount of time outdoors, I know this could not be further from the truth. To imply that the Leadership School somehow increased the risk to Plotkin is unfair and frankly negligent on the part of the DI.
The Leadership School is an organization with a 45-year history of teaching its students important outdoor, leadership, and emergency first-aid skills. Its "2010 State of the School Report" indicates it has nearly 200,000 alumni in addition to 15,000 new students each year. The death of Plotkin would be its first catastrophic incident in more than 10 years — a track record of which most schools would be proud. In addition, the Leadership School's risk-management statistics for the past 25 years are publicly available on its website in the same report, and they are excellent.

The Leadership School also appears to have made every effort for transparency during this tragedy. Fox News 9 in Minnesota reports that Plotkin's mother was alerted the same day as the accident and that the Leadership School enlisted the help of local Indian-Tibetan authorities as well as the Indian Army and the Leadership School staff members in the search effort. The news tab on its website also posted frequent updates with details surrounding the accident and the ongoing search. The families of the 20 students accompanying Plotkin were called and alerted, and counseling services were made available to the students remaining in India.

Anytime we venture into the outdoors, we accept some amount of risk. Even stepping foot out the front door carries some amount of danger, and this should not be forgotten. The study-abroad experience compounds this risk by placing individuals in a foreign environment to which they are not accustomed, but adapting to a new environment is much of what study abroad is about. There may certainly be study-abroad organizations out there with questionable track records on safety, but please do not lump the Leadership School in with them.

Parents of students wishing to study abroad or in the outdoors should be encouraged to support their children's interests because there is so much in life that cannot be learned in the traditional classroom. But certainly let the buyer beware. Students should visit the UI Office for Study Abroad and talk to alumni of programs they're interested in to check on safety and educational standards.

Having gone through three of the Leadership School programs, let me be the first to give it a rousing endorsement.

Matthew Berry is an alumnus of the National Outdoor Leadership School and is a graduate student at the University of Iowa, studying physiology.


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