The Amanda Knox/Meredith Kercher Study Abroad Case: A Murder in Italy and the Impact on Study Abroad Internationally

KnoxKercher_468x341Two young women lost their lives while on study abroad in Perugia, Italy. Meredith Kercher (right in photo), a British student from Leeds University on an exchange program, was brutally murdered inside her new home in Italy only two months into her program abroad. Amanda Knox (left in photo), an American study abroad student from the University of Washington, was found guilty of participating in the crime and sentenced to 26 years. I have no idea if Ms. Knox is guilty or not as I was not there, but I do recognize that losing 26 years of your life if a loss nevertheless, and a particularly sour one if you are eventually found innocent.

Today, newspapers in Europe and the US are ferociously covering this story, some sensationalizing it with tales of a sex game gone wrong, drugs, playful nicknames, dramatic photos and video of family members’ commentary, tears and anger. The Knox family will appeal the decision, the Kercher family will try to move on now that there is a semblance of “justice” for their beloved daughter.

My particular interest in this tragic story is in regards to how the perception of study abroad will be effected, which generally hasn’t been covered by the international press.

Sometime in 2008, a senior administrator at a local university suddenly turned to me at a public event and remarked “I wouldn’t let my kid study abroad – with that girl in Italy being in prison for this long without a trial. Forget it, it isn’t safe to send your kid abroad, even to Italy.” Dumbfounded might have been the appropriate word for my initial response. I pulled myself together rather quickly and simply commented that there was an investigation going on into a young woman’s murder, and that takes time. I think I managed to add that admitting to doing drugs abroad and then not having a clear story of your events that evening (which was in the news at the time of our discussion) was probably not a sound approach for getting out of prison quickly in any country – that and if your “kid” wasn’t doing these things, then perhaps there wouldn’t be any more for a parent to worry about when their “kid” is at home vs overseas studying. Had I not been so thrown off by his question, I hope that I would have mentioned that New York City has been a relatively safe place despite 9/11 and a history of violent crime when compared to other cities around the world , and that thankfully people who still choose to study here recognize that acts of violence and hatred in a place like New York are what should propel us to shove fear aside and venture out in the world to explore truth firsthand.

I’ve reflected on that conversation and recognize that parents latching themselves onto a story like this may result in a specific barrier to study abroad, and this will be of growing concern to those of us who work tirelessly to send our students abroad. The helicopter parent is not a new phenomenon, but will this case bring them out in droves when it comes to program selection and decision making? Or will they even allow their sons and daughters to get to the point of application for a study abroad program? Is this a US issue, or do parents in other regions of the world feel the same need to be increasingly involved in the decision to study abroad? How is this being discussed around the world?

The press has certainly covered the importance of university policy and operational procedures as a result of the Knox/Kercher case. The University of Washington has instituted “The Global Support Project (GSP)” described on their web page as “working closely with the Office of Global Affairs, faculty and staff across all campuses to create a draft university-wide global emergency management plan. The plan will knit together best practices of study abroad programs at both the UW and nationally.” In October 2009, The Seattle Pi news wrote an excellent report on the changes that Knox’s home university made, seemingly in light of her arrest and other study abroad related incidents abroad at other schools, which included tightening up policy and a review of overall process that appears to have resulted in the “Global Support Project.”

This case also highlights the importance of communication between home school administrators and students abroad. The University of Washington pro-actively emailed Ms. Knox to offer advice and support; Ms. Knox replied with an account of what happened when she found out about Ms. Kercher’s death. This email ultimately became part of the legal case in Italy. Legal counsel is increasingly important in cases like these.

Being from such a litigious country, I wonder if the Knox family eventually intends to file any type of suit regarding the housing selection process for this program in Italy. My understanding, and please note that I have not interviewed anyone at the University of Washington, is that the students selected housing in Italy. (If I am incorrect, please feel free to clarify the facts.) Was there something about the location of the apartment that could have left Ms. Knox exposed – for example, I have read that there is a garage down the road that had a reputation for drug deals? I do not know, but it reminds me the importance of knowing who your legal counsel is before making programmatic decisions such as housing.

I’d be very interested in your comments about how parents, students and administrators around the world are reacting to this verdict. Is it business as usual (no one can be safe anywhere in the world)? Or perhaps your university is tackling a safety and communication protocol in light of this case? How are students responding? Will universities directly address this with parents or wait for questions or possibly enrollment figures to come in? Are there trends across regions that we should be noting? Please share your thoughts – this dialogue is not happening across the web and it needs to be discussed.

  • Well i'm Italian from the south but i've been studying at University for Foreigners in Perugia for 5 years and i've studied almost for 1 year in Japan.

    Of course my mother was really worried about, even if i went to probably the most safe country in the world.

    I think it's pretty normal [more than a kind of costume] that a parent could change his or her mood due to some facts like a murder: my friends, my relatives, everyone wanted me to go back to south after that murder because media "drew" Perugia as the capital of drugs, a sort of new Ibiza for students [while according to stats, drugs' consumption is bigger in almost all the big city in Italy].

    Back to the post, i know where they lived and i know that the area is really really calm, nothing ever happened there and the danger is just to find a fast car on your way but after that, it's really not that dangerous [you can check on google maps, the name of the street is "Piazza Grimana"]. I totally agree with you that maybe universities should deal with each other better, trying to set everything before sending the students abroad: sometimes they just make them fulfill the docs and stop.

    Erasmus Project should be taken as an example [hope all of you know about Erasmus: it's the European studying-abroad program which is really popular in Europe] not only for USA-to-Europe Programs but for every kind of scholarship, indeed considering many of the students still not ready for the real life [so why should they figure how to rent a house in Italy while they even don't know how to do it back to their own country?

    Im really sorry for my poor English: last time i used it, i had a quarrel with a British guy who understood something else instead of "sheet" [i let you guess what].

    Last but not the least: my personal opinion on the trial.

    I read everything from Italian newspapers from the beginining and i can understand Americans are upset but i don't understand on the basis of what they are upset: i mean, you guys are all criticising the Italian judgement system even if you don't know that much about. It's true, in Italy we spend years to charge a person of something he or she did and we base the charge on clues. What's the difference with USA? I mean, Sacco & Vanzetti were not convicted on clues? Indeed, What happened to the soldiers who had fun on the Cermis' sky [http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/february/3/newsid_2527000/2527521.stm] ? Don't misunderstand me, it's not a revenge but it's just how the world goes round: justice is not the same everywhere.

    And i don't understand some anti-american feeling underlined by American newspapers: is Italy just a partner when there are some soldiers to send to Afghanistan? So why is Italy a friend of Usa?

    Apologise for the long comment.

    Ciao a tutti,

    Michele

    • Dear Michele,
      Grazie mille for your comments. I greatly appreciate your insight as you studied at the University of Perugia.
      My impression of anyone who is challenging this decision in the US is that they are looking at the law through a US lens. Clearly, the media has sensationalized this case (which happens in the US regularly), however the perception that Perugia is some drug capital is quite false, as appears to be the use of Ms. Knox's childhood nickname "Foxy Knoxy" which her family claims was given to her at the age of 8 after she was very good at defending her position in soccer (football). My understanding of the main differences between the two countries' legal systems are 1) that the jury in the US is selected and then screened for "bias" – so once selected, they are asked a series of questions that can rule them out – in this case they would be asked about their perceptions of British or Italian people, if there is any history of being a victim of a violent crime, etc. My understanding (and Michele, please correct me if I'm wrong) is that the Italian jury is selected and not screened after selection 2) In the US, the jury would work many days in a row on the case, and are given time off of work to serve as a juror. They would not be allowed to watch any news or read the internet so that they are not exposed to rumors. In Italy, I understand that the jury met on Fridays and Saturdays and has access to the press. Some may believe that the jurors could not keep a close record of the details by losing 5 days in between each meeting and could be biased by the rumor mill. 3) Perhaps the biggest difference is that in the US, the "burden of proof" is put on the prosecution. They must prove , beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant is guilty. So, according to US law, those who are concerned about the outcome may think that Ms. Knox's attorney proved enough doubt about her involvement. Interestingly enough, according to a CNN news poll online, 49% of American readers are ok with the results of the trial.
      Regarding Sacco/Vanzetti, I hope that the US legal system has changed radically since the 1920s. In 1977, the governor of the state of Massachusetts did proclaim that their names should not be seen negatively as he recognized there was extreme bias in this case.
      You also raise the point of politics in this case – I'm very curious how relations between England, the US and Italy will be impacted by this verdict. Or perhaps they won't? Only time will tell.
      Again, Michele, thank you for your thoughtful comments. Please feel free to comment again with your thoughts.
      Best wishes,
      Missy

  • Yeah, your analysis was pretty much good except for jury in Italy works many days on the case as well as it happens in US. The rest is totally correct, "corte d'assise" works in that way.

    According to the poll, probably someone made a reasonable thought about a person who didn't kill herself with her own hands and who dealt with no more than 3 guys in Perugia.

    Regarding the Sacco & Vanzetti's thing, i was just underlined that injustices are similar to each other if you move your habits from a country to another: back in the 20s, italians had some kind of complaints supported by UE but as far as the two guys were convicted in usa, they weren't able to do that much. And unfortunately i kinda agree with that matter. Whay it's not fair to me is to sue someone in his or her own country for something made in another one [that's what happened for the Cermis tragedy].

    I don't personally think the whole thing will touch all the links between England, Italy and USA: they all own some strong relations whose let them do the so called "do ut des", like a chain.

    Do you know about the Erasmus Project? What do you eventually think about? I personally think the main aim of the Exchange Programs is really cool but sometimes since many of the international students are not that mature, they tends to go beyond what they usually did back in their countries. That's why firstly students should be selected better and then, universities should do a big work with housing, info about the place etc etc

    I would read more about the matter from you.

    Cheers!

    Michele

    • Dear Michele,
      I realized that I did not comment of the Cermis incident. Incredibly, that was not covered extensively in the news in the US at the time and I don't think most Americans are making a connection between that case and Ms Knox's situation. The press has emphasized that the prosecutor had lost a previous case and was trying to "redeem" himself in this case instead. I do agree with you that justice is differently interpreted in each situation and that each culture has its own approach to achieving it. I do agree that it completely fair to seek justice based on an incident outside your home country – understanding that the laws will not be the same as at home. But that is part of the game – we agree to follow other countries' laws when we accept the gift of travel.
      I am aware of Erasmus and think that the concept is wonderful – it promotes mobility in education. However, as one friend recently stated (related to ALL study abroad), it would be important for any student going abroad to have a mandatory orientation program that addresses safety, maturity, expectations etc. She drew the very funny comparison to driving a car – "in the US you must take a 3 hour course before driving – so why is it so hard to mandate a preparation program to represent your country?" True, eh?
      Thank you again for your insight.
      Grazie, Missy

  • *I would like to… sometimes i loose words so easily, sorry

  • Hello, Missy. I'm glad to find your website through LinkedIn's "Forum" discussion.

    I don't actually know what impact the Kercher murder will have, but the press coverage has been quite sensational and that does raise the level of concern people feel, despite all logic. And of course, universities need to be prepared to deal with emergencies at home and abroad. I note the concerns raised again recently about Virginia Tech's handling of the horrific campus shooting more than a year ago. I wonder if some parents are afraid to send their students to Virginia Tech now, just as some people are afraid to fly and jump into their car instead (perhaps while talking on the cell phone)?

    Michele's comment that the neighborhood in Perugia is "safe" is probably another reason for sensational coverage. In contrast, someone was shot to death in the hallway of a building 2-3 blocks from my home in Brooklyn, New York, and because the neighborhood is often not seen as safe, because the dead man is most likely African American, and because there were drugs on the scene, I've had to hunt for our neighborhood blogs to find out anything about what happened. And the person who shot him has not been captured as far as I can determine. But none if this is newsworthy, apparently.

    From all I can tell, by the time Amanda is my age, she should be out of jail for several years. If she somehow has to server her entire sentence in Italy, she will have lived there longer than she did in the USA. Italy seems to have at least as comfortable a penal system as the USA (unlike the case with the young American woman who got implicated with terrorists in Peru several years ago and ended up in a hellish prison for a while). Amanda also has appeal options, and I'm sure we can expect televised interviews in jail, and somewhere there's a book to be written about this experience. But I doubt that we'll ever know exactly what happened.

    Betsy

    • Hello Betsy,
      Thanks for stopping by and for your important comments.
      I agree that the news coverage has been grossly sensationalized.
      Acts of violence do stir up communities – in my own personal experience, I recall the shooting on the LIRR back in the early 90s and how jumpy I was, even on the subway, in the days just after that event.
      The reporting about incidents abroad has been quite uneven – a UNC student was stabbed in Mexico this past week and it only appears to be in the local Asheville press. Ditto on some US university student deaths abroad in Singapore and China (which were not "violent", but more health related.) The issue of "safe" neighborhoods is definitely a tricky one. In my opinion, one can characterize a community as generally safe when based on local police statistics on the type and rates of crime. For example, I live in Bronxville – a "relatively" safe area when compared to Yonkers, where the press reports regular shootings – just a few miles away. Of course, anything can happen in Bronxville too – it just tends not to as frequently as it does in Yonkers. Sadly, the "relative safety" has come up in study abroad in my career as it relates to housing abroad. In London, due to concerns about the perceived safety of two different buildings that housed students, I had to go through a careful exercise to justify "safety" that did involve gathering data from the local police. Thankfully, no incidents ever occurred, but to your point, they can and do happen anywhere – one cannot predict these things.
      If the media keeps on top of this case, I'm sure there will be a TV mini-series, movie and book deal coming down the pike, eventually. And I wholeheartedly agree, the only ones who know the real story are Ms. Kercher and the person who took her young life.
      Thanks for your comments.
      Best wishes,
      Missy

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  • DJR

    This story will and has effected study abroad. As usual I see little discussion as to a cure. I do not, nor should anyone, associate any credence to anything known about this case, including drugs. The scenario is and has been created to create confusion so that Miss Knox can be ill treated and left in prison for as long as Italy wants. Is that an environment of health? Italy should be placed off the books for underclassmen as should hundreds of other schools until there is written by-laws about protocol in dealing with foreign students and their affairs. Signed and stamped by approval of said governments. The real forgotten issue here is Amanda Knox is not Italian. When Italy says it is about them it is not, we sent Amanda there and Italy implied their would be safe conduct. Instead she was treated like a DOG. The treatment of Amanda Knox also illustrates that Italy has nothing to offer students in the developing single world atmosphere. Italy"s actions will create bigger cause for U.S. isolationism and seeking partnerships with countries who want our relationship.

    • DJR: Here are my thoughts – study abroad has definitely been impacted by this case. Amanda Knox's own university, rightfully, did a full review of their safety and advising practicing and has dedicated a committee to ongoing process changes in recognition, to some extent, of failures in advising in this case. Foreigners are subject to local laws – same goes for foreign students in the US. I have had international students stripped searched at JFK airport for no apparent reason – outraged yet with no recourse bc the US law says we have the right to do so. I have had students entering the UK from the US subject to chest x-rays for TB, again, with no apparent reason and no legal recourse for what these 2 Americans saw as prejudicial and unsafe treatment. If you go back to a previous post, you'll note that I've had Italians comment about the perception of fairness in the Cavalese case, when the US military accidentally killed 20 Italians by knocking out a cable of a gondola of an aerial tramway. In my opinion, there should not be special laws surrounding students. The reality is that the court that convicted Amanda under Italian law did a good enough job to convince them, and their public, that she was involved. There is a lot of evidence in the global press that Amanda is actually treated "relatively well" in prison and that the guards are quite sympathetic toward her. I'd be curious to hear more opinions thoughts about this.

  • Dude from Chicago

    I have my theories and opinions, but overall this case is a cluster f*ck because the prosecutor and the defendants are crazy…

    The murder of Meredith Kercher is tragic, but I live in an area where murders occasionally occur and not to far from Chicago where it can just get crazy (On 4/16/2010 there were 7 killed, 15 wounded in 12 hours; as of 4/16 there have been 97 murders in Chicago; I would say at least 120 murders [safe guess] in the metro area) you just get numb to death when you hear about it all the time…

    As for study abroad programs, I think there is a lot of overreacting going on. People just need to grow up and know their surroundings…As a kid, I spent a lot of my time jumping on the train and heading down to Chicago, so I learned from a young age to not be naive and to know my surrounding…

  • Hello! Thanks for writing. While I appreciate your comment, I cannot post it as I specifically stated in the comments that this is not intended to be a dialogue about "whodunnit", but rather a place for us to discuss how to prepare students for their time abroad and how to make process/policy changes and handle emergencies abroad. I might suggest that you share your post with the countless sites that debate whether or not Ms. Knox is innocent. However, that is not the purpose of this post. Thank you!

  • Huaimek

    The British Institute of Florence places foreign students with families as paying guests .
    I think that is a far safer way that allowing students to rent accomodation they don’t know where . Many Italians buy houses or apartments in Perugia as an investment for student accommodation . But foreigners have no idea whether it’s a good district or not .
    When I was a student in London , my father went to London beforehand and found a good inexpensive B&B . My sister did an exchange with an Italian girl , but my father took her to Italy to meet the family and know that she would be safe .
    I recall reading that Amanda Knox’s stepfather did not approve of her going to Perugia , that he thought Amanda too naive and immature to be let loose in a foreign country .