School Climate & Safety

State Dept. Proposes Safety Measures for Exchange Students

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 30, 2005 4 min read
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A proposal by the U.S. Department of State to increase screening requirements for adults who interact with foreign youths in high school student-exchange programs isn’t strict enough, some child advocates said last week.

The proposed amendments for high school exchange programs, which bring about 25,000 secondary school students to the United States each year, are intended to help prevent sexual abuse.

Read the U.S. Department of State‘s proposed regulation aimed at helping stop sexual abuse of foreign-exchange students.

They call for criminal-background checks for staff members and program volunteers. Program sponsors would also have to run the names of all adults in host-family households through the state sex-offender registries, and report allegations of sexual misconduct both to the State Department and to local law-enforcement agencies.

Several members of host families have been found guilty of sexual misconduct of such students in the past two years.

• In June, Andrew Powers, a former biology teacher at Gaithersburg High School in Maryland, pleaded guilty to assault and sex-offense charges against a 17-year-old German girl who was living in his home, according to John McLane, a spokesman for the Montgomery County, Md., state’s attorney’s office. Mr. Powers is expected to be sentenced on Sept. 1.

• Also, Peter Ruzzo, a former history teacher at Hemet High School in Hemet, Calif., is serving three years in prison for having had sex with a 15-year-old German girl he and his wife hosted. Mr. Ruzzo pleaded guilty to six counts of lewd acts with a child and one count of penetration with a foreign object, according to Kelly L. Hansen, the deputy district attorney for Riverside County, Calif.

“I would not allow my child to stay with a family who hadn’t had criminal records checked,” Mr. Hansen said.

• Frank Swiderski, a former teacher who hosted foreign-exchange students in Eastlake, Ohio, is serving a prison term of 2½ years for gross sexual imposition and pandering obscenity involving a minor, according to Karen Kowall, the chief assistant of the criminal division of the Lake County, Ohio, prosecutor’s office .

In 2003, a 17-year old Vietnamese student confided to a teacher in Eastlake that Mr. Swiderski had fondled him, participated in nude massages with him, and forced the youth to shave Mr. Swiderski’s pubic hair. Ms. Kowall said Mr. Swiderski had also taken photos of himself posing with foreign-exchange students in the nude.

Wider Checks Favored

Ernie Allen, the president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, based in Alexandria, Va., praised the State Department for proposing new regulations to help protect foreign youths, but he said the criminal-background checks should be extended to adults in host families.

Added Protection

To help protect foreign-exchange students from sexual abuse, the U.S. Department of State has proposed these steps.

• Sponsors of exchange programs must conduct criminal-background checks for officers, employees, agents, representatives, and volunteers acting on their behalf.

• The names of all adults living in the household of a host family must be vetted through a sex-offender registry kept in the state in which the student will live.

• The programs must have monthly contact with host families and students.

• Student participants cannot be more than 18 years and 6 months of age as of the program starting date.

• Any allegations of sexual misconduct against foreign-exchange students must be reported to both local law-enforcement authorities and the State Department.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of State

In addition, he said, the State Department should specify that such background checks be conducted on a national level, not merely the state level.

Danielle Grijalva, an activist in Oceanside, Calif., who has been campaigning for more screening of adults who interact with foreign-exchange students, also said that criminal-background checks should be required of adults in host families.

In July, she founded the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students with the goal of drawing more attention to the need to protect foreign-exchange students from sexual abuse.

She has collected nearly a dozen news stories on allegations of sexual abuse of high school foreign-exchange students—what she calls “a pattern of abuse that is making headlines around the world.” Most, but not all, of those stories involved alleged offenses in the United States.

‘Concerned Citizens’

The State Department drafted the proposal in response to “concerned citizens,” according to Edgar Vasques, a spokesman for the agency.

“We have heard their concerns, examined the situation, and felt it was necessary to build in an extra level of protection for youth-exchange students,” he said.

The Federal Register posted the proposed rule on Aug. 12; the State Department will accept comments until Oct. 11.

Representatives of several foreign-exchange programs said they had not yet formed official positions on the proposal and wouldn’t comment on it specifically.

“I don’t see us rejecting the whole package wholesale,” said John O. Hishmeh, the executive director of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, which represents student-exchange programs. The Alexandria, Va.-based organization will likely recommend “tweaking” the proposal, he said.

Mr. Hishmeh added that “there’s a concern among some programs, not all, that criminal background checks are expensive and take a long time to come in.” Estimating the cost or time is difficult, he said, since the State Department didn’t say what method of background checks should be required.

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