Preventing Students from Becoming Prey

Many of the health, safety and security incidents that befall study abroad students involve their being victimized by predatory persons.

Most study abroad students are exposed to some cautionary information from their school or program in the form of handbooks, assumption of risk forms, orientations, and/or in-country briefings. However, as reported by Hartjes et al, 2009, 85% of students on study abroad programs report getting most of their risk management information from youth oriented guide books such as the Lonely Planet Guides and Rough Guides and only 9% cite their campus study abroad program materials as a resource for pre-departure information. Additionally, the study shows that students  tend to be under-informed about hazards abroad, under-concerned about them and overconfident in their abilities to manage them.

Why is it that telling students critical safety information seems to have so little effect?

It might be a failure of imagination on the part of the students. Few have been the victims of serious crimes or know anyone who has been a victim. Their over-protective parents have done an excellent job at keeping them safe. Play dates and structured activities reduce the exposure to potential dangers, but may also reduce the life navigational experience. They may simply have a very low index of suspicion when it comes to interacting with new people.

Perhaps our culture’s self esteem building has also left them ill equipped to manage predators. When a host country national seems very interested in students, it should at least raise some question on the part of the student as to why this person is so interested. But for young adults who have grown up believing that people are naturally interested in them, this may not register.

Warning desensitization may play a role. Students have heard scary warnings all their lives. They’ve been bombarded by scary news in the media all their lives. They may not be all that impressed when they hear that there are scary hazards on their study abroad programs, especially if the delivery of that information resembles an excellent imitation of inept parenting.

Or perhaps just putting facts out there for students to take or leave just isn’t a particularly effective way to engage them. We’re all performing triage all day long choosing what to ignore and where to invest our finite attention. If your attention can only manage 2 of the below items, which one appears least need fulfilling to you?
a)    Logistical info absolutely necessary for your participation in program?
b)    Information regarding what will be really interesting to do at the destination?
c)    Scary facts about potential hazards?

So, as has been pointed out at a number of study abroad conferences, there are more and less effective ways to get students to engage in health, safety and security concerns.

On the negative side: don’t schedule orientations during exams; don’t schedule orientations 3 months prior to the program; don’t have students take turns reading sections from a manual to each other; and don’t just present dry facts and hope they stick.

On the plus side: make orientations and briefings mandatory (as in you cannot go if you do not attend); make orientations engaging with skits and discussions; if you want students to retain written/presented information then it should be set up to involve a future test.

Rather than tell students facts that a particular neighborhood or a particular group is dangerous, engage their understanding.

The people who most study abroad students have the easiest access to did not just decide that these Americans that they’ve seen on TV for so many years seem fascinating and decide they want to meet them. The stories that predators are likely carrying have more to do with the relative wealth of American students, their sexual availability, their lack of wariness and their inclination to drink a lot. Students lack an appreciation of the baggage they carry as having hailed from a wealthy country and as a student overseas, the perceived likelihood of belonging to a wealthy family.

In Costa Rica, it is not an unusual occurrence for a student to be robbed of their belongings at the Coca Cola Bus Station in San Jose despite being warned that this was a hotspot for theft just prior to going there. Perhaps if they’d had a short guided imaginary tour of how they might appear to a Central American with very few material resources. They might appreciate that their very expensive backpack projects wealth. And, while the camera, smartphone, expensive label clothing, etc. may not be brand new or this year’s model, they more than justify the trouble of putting together a crew to create a distraction, execute a bump, a grab and a couple of pass offs.  Poof, no more backpack.

In some locales where ed abroad programs have been established over an extended period of time, there are groups of men who prey on women students semester after semester. They know the start dates of the program. They have strategies and gambits that have been perfected via observation, imitation, trial and error. They have had a steeper and more sustained learning curve than most of the staff affiliated with the program. Like any predator they sniff out the weakest members of the herd, i.e., those students who may not be particularly skilled socially or lack confidence and who are susceptible to their strategies. Over time they weaken their quarries defenses and separate them from the herd. They don’t waste time with students who won’t engage them. They sometimes befriend the male students to help facilitate access and defuse potential unproductive conflict. They encourage the Americans inclinations towards binge drinking, but they are very moderate in theirs.

Informing students in a community like this of the facts, that there are potentially dangerous “bad guys” around, has generally proved very ineffective. The “bad guys” are usually more successful in convincing the students that the program staff are nefarious and are somehow exploiting the students. In one such community after a previous semester’s sexual assault, the local men convinced most of the students that the rape victim was somehow responsible for the assault. Even having the local police show slides of the local individuals with bad reputations didn’t have any impact.

The program found help from Nancy Newport, a former sexual assault counselor for the Peace Corps.  She recommended The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. Gavin de Becker grew up in an extraordinarily dysfunctional environment where he learned to pay attention to the dynamics around his own experience of violence. He has become an expert on the prediction and management of violence and founded a high-end security consulting firm

From his book a simple 2-page curriculum was created that described the strategies and gambits that predators use to turn people into prey or what he calls “survival signals”.  Rather than a list of facts, this curriculum requires understanding and recognizing a dynamic or constellation of dynamics.

Paraphrased or quoted from The Gift of Fear:

Charm and Niceness
Think of charm as an action rather than an attribute. Charm is almost always an action with a goal to influence or control. “He was so nice” is a comment often heard from people describing the man who moments or months after his niceness, attacked them. Niceness is a strategy of social interaction. Unsolicited niceness should elicit the question: what is the motive here?

Discounting the Word “No”
Not responding to “no” is a sign of attempting to exercise control. The worst response to give to someone who refuses to accept “no” is to incrementally give in. Negotiation is also a poor response. Negotiation is about possibilities. If you mean “no”, don’t negotiate. Refusing to accept “no” often starts with refusing to accept “no” to minor issues such as buying you a drink, asking you to dance, joining you uninvited at your table, touching you etc.

Loan sharking
The predator generously offers assistance or gifts, but is always calculating the debt. Buying drinks, inviting you to do fun things, etc. may simply be a way of expressing interest in you. However, it may be on some level a very basic effort to exercise some control over you and to justify an insistence that you repay the debt.

A man labels a woman in some slightly (or not so slightly) critical way, hoping she’ll feel compelled to prove that his opinion is not accurate. (“You are too racist to talk/dance/whatever with me,”- is one way this has played out in study abroad). The typecaster doesn’t even believe what he says is true. He just believes that it will work.

Too Many Details
People who want to deceive you will often use a simple technique called “too many details”. When people are telling the truth, they don’t feel doubted, so they don’t feel the need for additional support in the form of details. When people lie, however, even if what they say sounds credible to you, it doesn’t sound credible to them, so they keep talking. If you are invited to a party with a description of the food and the people and “my mother will be cooking and would love to meet you…” you might pause for a moment to think about it.

Forced Teaming
Forced teaming is a way to establish premature trust because a we’re-all-in-the-same-boat attitude is hard to rebuff without feeling rude. The detectable signal of forced teaming is the projection of a shared purpose or experience where none exists. “How are we going to handle this?”

The Unsolicited Promise
Promises are used to convince us of an intention. The reason a person promises you something is that he can see that you are unconvinced. When someone promises you something, it tells you that you are doubtful. Then you need to listen to your doubts and ask where they are coming from, and then decide to suppress them or to listen to them.

This curriculum did not eliminate the issue. However, some students did subsequently report that on occasion when they were in the midst of an interaction with local men they recognized a particular dynamic. At the point of recognition, the dynamic was wholly ineffective and usually led to students comparing their experience of the dynamic. The ability to recognize the behavior served as a behavioral inoculation.

Presenting a dynamic or a behavioral phenomenon rather than a fact has advantages. First, a dynamic requires effort to be understood. In the context of engagement with discussions and role-playing, students display their understanding to their peers. Understanding these dynamics is likely more interesting and more compelling than accepting a statement. Secondly, the students may have felt somewhat less infantilized as being asked to learn a somewhat sophisticated skill confers recognition of competence and ability. Being asked to accept a statement on face value could conceivably be received as an assessment of underdeveloped judgment.

The locus of control for student behavior does not reside in the hands of education abroad program managers. However, in terms of influencing student behavior, the more effective approaches are successful in engaging students’ attention and successful in motivating them to learn skills and perspectives that will assist them in being healthier, more secure and safer on all fronts, including from predators.