SAFETY Aruba case sheds light on risks for young travelers
Experts say teens should use common sense to help stay safe.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
PLANO, Texas -- Before John Wakeman's 18-year-old daughter and three friends left for a three-week trip through Europe, the Plano father laid down the law for how they should have fun while remaining safe.
But when young people and other travelers go abroad, their safety is not something parents or even the U.S. government can guarantee. Following the recent disappearance in Aruba of an 18-year-old from Alabama, law enforcement officials, schools and travel agents are warning parents and their children to follow some basic steps that can increase the odds of a safe trip abroad.
Natalee Holloway was in Aruba with classmates to celebrate high school graduation when she disappeared May 30 after a night out at a popular bar. Five men have been arrested in connection with her disappearance as hundreds of volunteers continue to search for her.
FBI spokesman Bill Carter said cases in which Americans vanish on school or group trips abroad are rare. He said the FBI and U.S. officials try to help when Americans get into trouble on foreign soil, but the agency's authority is limited.
"We work very closely with the country in question to resolve the case, but if a crime occurs in that country, then it's up to the authorities in that country to conduct the investigation," he said.
Wakeman said safety while traveling requires common sense.
"The average European city is far safer than the average U.S. city," he said. "Obviously there is danger everywhere, but they have to use common sense."
He spoke with his daughter, Cheney, by phone recently and gets daily e-mails while she's traveling.
"Basically, the key rule is that they should always stay together," he said. "To be completely explicit, we told them if one wants to go off with a guy, then the other three better go with them."
Parents should be aware that some group outings for young people are organized informally, even if they appear to be sponsored by schools or churches.
In Arlington, Texas, schools do not sanction trips unless "there is an educational purpose, which does not mean that teachers or organizers or any other clubs can't take their own trips during nonschool time," said Veronica Sopher, spokeswoman for the Arlington Independent School District.
But school rules don't stop outings such as that by Blake Gibbs, 18, and about 30 classmates from Plano East Senior High. They were leaving recently on a senior trip for Cancun -- a final shot at summer revelry before the rigors of college.
The tour, organized by an agency specializing in student travel, doesn't include parents or chaperones.
"I tried to scare him with some stories," said his mother, Sherry Blake.
"We stressed to him that you don't go off the beaten path, and we're making him check home every day."
Alcohol also can lead to danger. In Aruba and many other countries, the legal drinking age is 18.
One of the most notorious cases of a young person being abducted during travel abroad is the 1989 slaying of a University of Texas student who was on spring break in Mexico. Mark Kilroy, 21, was abducted off the streets of Matamoros while bar-hopping with friends.
Law officials discovered Kilroy's mutilated body several days later. He had been the victim of a cult sacrifice.
Another danger lies in traveling to lands where terrorism is a part of daily life.
Rabbi Paul Steinberg recently returned from a 16-day educational tour of Israel with 30 eighth-graders, three chaperones, two guides -- and an armed guard.
"We avoid public buses, as those are prime targets for violence," he said. "We hire out a bus and driver from the agency. We almost never let the kids go out on their own. If we do, it's in a closed area, so we know where they are."
Hank Phillips, president of the National Tour Association, said when traveling, people should consider using a tour company.
"The less familiar an individual is with a destination, the better it is to go with a travel company that understands the destination and any risks that should be avoided," he said.