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Volume 3, Number 1, 2005 Edition

Crime and Incident Reporting: Best Practices

By Inés DeRomaña and Tiffany C. Stevens

A sound institutional emergency plan should include procedures to report incidents that occur abroad. An institution should attempt to limit the frequency of incidents. Prevention is more effective and ultimately easier than reacting to them after they occur. Thus, pre-arranged steps that an institution should take to prevent an incident are an important complement to an incident response capability. Clear procedures for assessing the potential impact of incidents is critical, as is implementing effective methods of collecting, analyzing, and reporting the data. This article outlines the essential elements of a clearly articulated system of incident reporting and analyzes some legal theory about how this process works.

An incident reporting system allows the institution to:

  • Review and analyze recurring problems overseas,
  • Identify any trends across programs, regions, and/or campuses
  • Recognize areas of vulnerability and risk,
  • Improve performance in managing risk and in the institutional response system to such incidents,
  • Identify new procedural systems, or policy changes,
  • Develop healthier and safer programming overseas,
  • Design training sessions and strategies for students and new staff, and
  • Establish ongoing "debriefing" systems for continuing staff.

Also, an incident reporting system will help the institution, which may be needed, and to promote a greater awareness of health and safety issues abroad.

What is a reportable incident?

Incident reporting should be used for any crimes or incidents reported by a student that involved bodily harm or the threat of bodily harm, or any racially motivated verbal/physical harassment. Stalking behavior should be considered an incident that involves “threat of bodily harm," even if no direct threat is verbalized. The incident may vary in terms of the scale of the emergency and the level of media interest. In all instances, it is critical to document when the crime or incident occurred, when it was reported, and what response protocol was used by program staff. In addition to a standardized safety incident report form used to report critical incidents as described above, the institution should include a summary of all incidents that happened during the year in an annual safety and incident report. Minor street crime that happens during the year, which includes petty theft like pick pocketing (a form of street crime that causes little objective damage, but a great deal of alarm) should be included in the yearly statistical summary. However, as with any crime, students who are victims of petty theft should be encouraged to report it to the local police in addition to reporting to study abroad staff.

What are the protocols?

Upon receiving a report of an incident, the program staff overseas should make sure that the student is safe, begin an incident file, and determine the most appropriate course of action based on the gravity of the incident and the immediate need of the student, and when reasonable, complete an incident report form including as much detail as possible. A copy of this form should be sent to the main U.S. office, which should have a permanent central repository for these records.

After any incident, the response needs to be timely and professional, and also as personal and sincere as possible. All incidents should be treated confidentially. Keep reports in a safe, confidential place while abroad and on the home campus. Consult with your in-house or university counsel if you need guidance in writing your form and/or deciding where to store filled in reports. The standardized incident report that the overseas staff will generate should try to determine the following:

  1. Did the reported event (or events) definitely involve a program student?
  2. Time and date of the incident
  3. Did the student need medical attention?
  4. Were there witnesses?
  5. Was the host university notified?
  6. Was a police report filed?
  7. Was it a critical incident that affected the rest of the student cohort and the overseas staff?
  8. Is there need for counseling?
  9. After the incident has been addressed, are there recommendations for immediate and long-term plans of action?

The overseas program and the home institution that was involved in the incident should hold a “lessons learned” meeting to review how effective the incident handling process was and identify necessary improvements to existing practices. The information gathered during this meeting should be used to identify a systemic improvement of institutional policies and procedures, if needed. Update the form as well and also make changes to your website, waiver form(s) and program orientation materials.

It is important to note that, at all times, staff should be respectful of a student’s privacy. They should not reveal information, even to a student’s family members, without the student’s express written consent. If a reporting student requests anonymity, this request must be honored to the extent permitted by law. Accordingly, no information should be included on the incident report form that would personally identify the victim without his or her consent. In all cases of critical incidents, every effort should be made to encourage the student to contact a parent and/or guardian. If the student’s life is in danger, it may be considered prudent to involve families and either to consider sending the student home, or bringing the family members abroad to assist the student. Consider your waiver forms and what exactly they state. There could be a situation where you have to weigh outcomes and in which dealing with a privacy lawsuit will be preferable over a wrongful death or injury claim if the student has not disclosed and is harmed.

Central Repository of Incident Report Forms

An organized central repository of information will allow staff to review how previous incidents of a particular kind were handled and resolved. Having all incidents centralized will help to systematically compile, review, and analyze recurring problems, identify any trends across programs, campuses, student cohorts, debrief and draw lessons from handling of individual incidents, which can then be disseminated to staff in the U.S. and abroad, and identify policy changes that may be warranted.

A Word About Due Process in Study Abroad

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that citizens should not be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process. Due process can either be procedural or substantive. Procedural due process concerns the fairness and validity of rules and policies. Substantive due process prohibits arbitrary and capricious conduct by an institution where it was maliciously motivated or there is no rational basis for the decision.

In thinking about due process, which is complicated area of law even for practicing lawyers, consider what you are taking away from the student. Specifically, what are the procedures on the home campus that happen before a student is suspended, expelled or otherwise sanctioned? Now compare that to your process abroad while the student is on the program. Most likely you will want to send a student home to protect his or her safety or the safety of the other students on the program. A “reasonable” process for this might include a plan of action laid out in advance and keeping diligent records of complaints and incidents, documenting the problems and process for sending the student home in real time. Action taken more quickly overseas is often necessary for safety or efficiency reasons while a longer hearings process might happen on campus.

The added challenge for the study abroad administrator is how to mirror judicial hearing boards or other home campus procedures overseas. These may be important details if an accused brings up due process violations, the process should be as comprehensive abroad as possible to protect all students involved. Remember that as you design your screening or selection screening process, the US Department of Education has pointed out that is not a violation of FERPA for the university at large to disclose to the study abroad office the final proceedings of a campus disciplinary proceeding if the student is an alleged perpetrator of a crime of violence or a non-forcible sex offense. (34 CFR § 99-31-33 as cited in US Department of Education, March 10, 2003) Therefore, a study abroad office can request to be kept apprised of these students so they may choose to deny their participation in study abroad programs. If such a student participated in the program and committed similar offenses again, a victimized student may have stronger action against the university, the study abroad office, and even specific staff or faculty who did not attempt to prevent such actions.

Inés DeRomaña serves as Senior Policy Coordinator at the University of California, Education Abroad Program and Tiffany C. Stevens is a visiting scholar, University of California at Los Angeles.