How Has the Amanda Knox Case Impacted Study Abroad?

Amanda Knox behind bars

In the US, we are preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday. We’ll be hunkering down in the kitchen, chopping, mixing and baking away.  In Italy, Amanda Knox and her attorneys are preparing for her appeal scheduled for Wednesday.

With Ms. Knox’s appeal quickly approaching, I again began to think about the implications of her arrest and conviction on study abroad program administration.  I recently posed the following question to colleagues in the field: “How many of your institutions (US, non-US) made policy or process changes as a result of the Knox case?”

Let me again state that my role is not to comment on whether or not I think Ms. Knox is innocent or guilty in the murder of Meredith Kercher, a British study abroad student. It is also not to challenge how the evidence was reviewed in a legal system that is different than that of my own country. However, it is important to ask the question so that we may better understand how, as university administrators, we can best prepare our students for an experience abroad and to understand what implications, if any, there are as a result of this rare case.

I had several responses to the question above.  I believe all replies were from the US, although one was from an American who has lived in Italy for 20 years. The majority of respondents confirmed that their institutions have not changed their processes dramatically. Most stated that they continue to provide information about what the embassy ‘can and cannot do’ to assist in the event of an emergency or crime. Some now specifically cite the Knox case as an example of how visitors in a foreign country are subject to local laws.

Interestingly, several commented specifically on the lack of institutional liability in a case like this.  Most agree that we are to simply obligated to share information about the realities of other legal systems and then it is up to the student to choose to make wise or poor choices while abroad.

One person referenced how the behavior of “hordes of drunken American students” abroad can fuel the fire when one is faced with local legal action. We know that the primary issue for our students abroad is their lack of discipline when drinking alcohol. Did visiting American students partying into all hours of the night in Perugia impact the public’s perception of Ms. Knox? No one can say for sure.

There are those who simply say that this case isn’t anything more than common sense – if you commit a crime, expect to suffer the consequences, even if you don’t fully understand them in a different legal system (or your own for that matter.)

The only other recent commentary that I’ve read in the media about this subject – and it may translate well to a young generation who respond to slick and hip blog sites – is this tongue in cheek post called “How Not to Get Arrested When You’re Abroad:  A Foxy Knoxy Inspired Guide” on New York’s Gawker.com.

The reality is that we do have an obligation to notify students about the potential consequences of their behavior abroad. Perhaps that means spelling out for them what can happen in a worse case scenario, using examples like Ms. Knox’s situation.  It may also mean that we need to create a specific process about what to do if you are a witness to a crime scene – such as carrying an emergency card with you at all times, calling your embassy for advice and refusing to speak with anyone until you have legal representation so that you understand the possible implications of your voice and actions.  (Sadly, this also applies to Steve Moore, the ex-FBI and ex-Pepperdine University employee who was fired for allegedly refusing to stop voicing his opinion about the Knox case.)

Wednesday will prove to be a day where the media is humming with news on this case.  It will be fascinating to see what transpires next.