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Carleton off-campus studies office weighs in on Amanda Knox

<llowing a case that gained notoriety in both U.S. and foreign media, American student Amanda Knox was released from prison Oct. 4 after being acquitted of the murder charge of her British roommate, Meredith Kercher, four years ago.
While the case sparked polarizing media portrayals and criticism of the Italian justice system, it also raised questions about student safety:  namely, what can students studying abroad do to minimize their risk, especially when they are unfamiliar with the local legal system? While a situation such as Knox’s is rare, it should still be regarded as a cautionary tale of student behavior abroad.

Following Knox’s release, hundreds of blog posts have sprung up on the internet emphasizing the dangers of traveling abroad“Could your child be the next Amanda Knox?” asked online blogger Heather Borden Herve in the Bronxville Patch, describing her efforts to instill independence and common sense in her children following the Knox verdict.

While Knox’s case is extreme, fears such as Herve’s are not unfounded. The U.S. State Department website reports that every year, more than 200,000 Americans are the victims of crimes, accidents or illnesses while in foreign countries, or simply disappear without a trace. Helena Kaufman, Carleton’s director of Off-Campus Studies, offered insight into how Carleton students can stay safe when traveling abroad.

Carleton, she said, takes student safety very carefully. When it comes to international programs, the first concern is “whether or not (the program) is a safe way to accomplish your goals,” she said.  She noted that while many of the cases reported by the State Department concern American tourists, Carleton study abroad programs provide a very different environment.

As a student, “your presence there is different than (that of) a typical tourist,” she said.

In addition to expert faculty and partnerships with organizations and academic officials in foreign countries, Carleton receives daily updates from an organization called International S.O.S., which reports political, medical and other potentially troublesome potentially troublesome situations at potential study abroad sites. While OCS also pays close attention to warnings from the U.S. State Department, Kaufman was quick to emphasize that while these warnings are “very, very important,” they generally weigh all factors in assessing the appropriateness and safety of a study abroad site.

In addition, said Kaufman, OCS does its best to prepare students to study abroad safely and responsibly. In addition to requiring health forms and specific medical counseling on disease risk, there is also a mandatory Health and Safety meeting led by the Student Health and Counseling service (SHAC). Since last year, Kaufman and the SHAC have also run a session on safety abroad specifically for women. Featuring Darren Rogers, a psychologist, the meetings address the specific issues that women face traveling. “It’s not mandatory—you should only go if you feel like you would like it,” said Kaufman, but in her opinion, it is a “very useful addition” to the program.

In regard to the Knox case, Kaufman emphasized that there “isn’t much of a connection” between Knox’s situation and specific policies regarding health and safety. “We have never had major run-ins with legal systems,” she said, although there have been minor cases where legal assistance was required. However, should Carleton students ever find themselves in a tough legal situation, they have specific access to a program called International SOS. In addition to providing medical assistance, International SOS also provides legal representation for students—a resource that might have helped Knox, whose original,and most damning, police interrogation was conducted without a lawyer present. Kaufman said that knowledge of foreign legal systems is crucial when studying abroad. “In a situation of international law,” she said, you “should definitely familiarize yourself beforehand.”

She also noted that students need to be careful of how their behavior is perceived outside of the United States. Knox was condemned in the European media as a drug-crazed, out-of-control college student when she admitted to smoking pot in her boyfriend’s apartment on the night of Kercher’s murder; after she was photographed kissing her boyfriend, wild media speculations also emerged about her sex life.

Although Kaufman acknowledged that Knox’s case was extreme, she said that Knox’s early naïvete contributed to her rabid stereotyping by the media. Kaufman admitted that the stereotype of Americans as frivolous, irresponsible, or disrespectful “is definitely out there…it certainly was a variable in [Knox’s] case.”

Moreover, once the idea had been planted in the minds of the media, public judgment of Knox was immediate. “We don’t slow down—the public opinion begins right away,” said Kaufman. In Knox’s case, “the [American] stereotype of drugs, alcohol, and sex…was right there for the taking.”  Knox’s every move was magnified by the press, ensuring that even simple actions were under heavy scrutiny. Several days after the murder, Knox, who could not access any of her clothing in the apartment, went shopping for underwear and other basic necessities; she was later vilified for having a “sex obsession” in the media.

“Obviously, this was not a typical study abroad experience,” Kaufman said, but barring the “bizarre circumstances” there are “still lessons to be learned.” One such basic lesson is, as Kaufman put it, that “your assumptions that you bring with you may not work there; it is not helpful to simply say ‘that’s not how it is done at home.’”

Kaufman offered a few final words of advice for Carleton students who are currently abroad or are planning to study abroad. “Be aware of stereotypes,” she warned, “Context is important.” And most importantly, in a heated or dire situation, “ensure that, right away, you access whatever help is available to you.”

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