Four delegation leaders on a People to People trip -- in which a Minnesota teenager died -- drank beer in their Tokyo hotel room instead of getting the 16-year-old the medical assistance he requested after he climbed Mt. Fuji.
That is one of the startling findings released today by the teen's parents, who announced the official settlement of their civil action in the wrongful death lawsuit they filed in the wake their sons June 29, 2007, death.
The terms of the settlement are confidential, but Sheryl and Allen Hill are now sharing some of the details they learned -- during depositions and other legal proceedings -- about the death of their son, Tyler, on his "dream trip" to Japan.
The Hills filed their 2008 wrongful death lawsuit in Hennepin County District Court against Ambassadors Group, Inc. -- the company that markets the People to People trips and handles all the travel arrangements --, People to People Student Ambassador Programs, People to People International, a United Kingdom organization called docleaf Limited, two of its employees -- Larry McGonnell and Dr. David Perl -- and the four delegation leaders on Tyler's trip: Susan Stahr, Pat Veum-Smith, Josh Aberle, and Angela Hanson.
In that action, the family alleged that People to Peoples' delegation leaders refused to take Tyler to the hospital when he requested medical attention.
Tyler had Type 1 diabetes and complex migraine headaches conditions his family disclosed before he left on his overseas journey.
But the travel organization that touts its ties to President Dwight D. Eisenhower assured the Hills it had a solid safety record and a 24-hour response team that could handle any medical emergency.
That promise laid the foundation for the Hill's lawsuit, which alleged that no one with the organization responded to Tylers pleas for medical attention when he became sick after hiking Mt. Fuji and his death in the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center was the result of that negligence.
Earlier today, the family released more details surrounding Tyler's death.
"Sheryl Hill was told by one of the leaders that on June 26, 2009, Tyler thought he had altitude sickness after climbing Mt. Fuji, and he wanted to go the doctor," the Hills said in a statement. "The leader gave him water, and told him to go to his room and work through it."
At that point, the Hills learned, the four delegation leaders went to a hotel room and started drinking beer.
"Veum-Smith, Hanson, and Stahr joined Aberle in his room, where all of the leaders drank beer until sometime between 12:30 and 12:45 a.m.," the Hills said in todays statement.
Those comments appeared under the heading "Evidence before Hennepin Country Court."
"Tyler had been vomiting for hours and asked for enough water to feed a family," the statement continues. "He was held back for the day's activities; his heart stopped less than 10 hours later. Despite specific training to contact the parents or seek medical attention when a child shows 'moderate' signs of dehydration, no phone calls were made to the Hills until Tyler's heart had stopped for than an hour."
Tyler died of apparent "severe dehydration," the Hill said, adding all four delegation leaders had training on treating dehydration.
The Hills today also said they discovered:
• Two of the delegation leaders searched Tyler's belongings and took pictures of some items while he was in the hospital. "While Tyler was dying in the hospital, Aberle and Hanson went through Tyler's personal belongings and took photographs of his medications and insulin," the family's statement said.
• One of the delegation leaders was on a previous People to People Trip in which student died. "Stahr was a student ambassador leader on a trip to New Zealand where another student died," the Hill's statement said. "The Hills were not informed or her prior safety record."
Asked if the settlement resolves all the issues alleged in their lawsuit -- and brings the family peace -- Sheryl Hill told us: We asked for truth, justice, accountability, and restitution. Justice is an open window and I would accept any help."
The lawsuit, however, does resolve the issues of restitution and accountability, the family said in today's statement.
The Ambassadors' Group CEO Jeff Thomas has publicly apologized and acknowledged that his organization accepts some responsibility for Tyler's death.
"Through hindsight we can see that there are steps that all of the leaders should have taken that could have prevented Tyler's death on June 29, 2007, during a trip to Tokyo, Japan, and regret that they were not taken," Thomas said in a statement released in June. "We are very sorry for Tyler's death and the Hill Family's loss and the impact it has had on many. We continue to review all policies surrounding students with pre-existing conditions, including diabetes protocols, to refine our procedures."
The judge in the Hill's case also granted a motion permitting the family to amend their complaint and seek punitive damages against Ambassadors Group Inc. and others named in the action.
But does the settlement bring peace and solace to the Hill family -- Sheryl, Allen, and Alec -- who continue to grieve the loss of their beloved son and older brother?
The son and brother they lovingly called "Ty man a top athlete who had 'dominated' his diabetes and was known for his big smile and tender heart.
"I will have found peace when the Travelling Youth Standards of Safety law passes," Sheryl Hill told us today.
Since Tyler's death, the Hills have advocated for the safety for students participating in travel programs. "How could I (we) not do that?" Sheryl Hill said. "To not do that would be like tossing another kid in the fire."
The legislation the Hills support would ensure that safety measures, sanctions, and penalties are in place to protect students participating in various travel programs.
"No safety standards, sanctions or penalties exist to protect children's health and safety rights while entrusted to third parties, especially during travel programs," the Hills said in their statement today. "Children have been denied health care, died, hurt, abandoned, raped and suffered severe illnesses, while traveling with some student travel programs. There is currently no oversight committee dogging the student travel industry."
The Hills' efforts have the backing of two of Minnesota's Congressional leaders.
"I am extremely grateful to Senator Amy Klobuchar and Congressman Erik Paulsen for hearing me and supporting the advocacy for the safety of students on these trips," Sheryl Hill told us.
Tyler, she said, would also champion the family's safety campaign. "Tyler would say 'You rock, mom,'" Sheryl said.
Her husband, Allen, added. "I think he would say that he was proud of us for sticking up for him and other children."
Another advocate of the Hills' legislative effort is Danielle Grijalva, director for the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students.
"I receive numerous complaints about other travel agencies from children and their parents about supervisors being intoxicated, molestations, children being denied health care when they are sick, unsanitary living quarters and 'unaccounted for' children," she said. "Parents need to inform themselves of the safety record of agencies and supervisors they are entrusting their kids to."
ConsumerAffairs.com has received complaints about students going missing, being "unaccounted" for unknown periods of times, becoming sick, or even struck by a car on recent People to People trips.
A single mom in New York told us her 11-year-old daughter was hit by a car during a recent People to People trip to France and England. The delegation leaders, however, did not disclose all the details of the accident to Heather M. of Schenectady, New York.
"I was informed that another child had bumped her into the narrow street of London and a small light car over her foot," she said. "(They said) nothing was broken and she was given two pain pills and told to take something over the counter for pain."
When her daughter returned home, however, Heather learned the accident was much more serious.
"She was struck - whole body -- by a car. Feet, legs, and arms," Heather said. "She had bruises on her foot, toe, ankle, arm, and stomach. She traveled in an ambulance to the ER - something I was not told on the day of incident.
"We had a follow-up with her pediatrician, who said she was a very lucky little girl," she added. "Only time will tell what will come from her injuries in the future."
People to People offered no apologies for the accident, Heather said. Instead, the organization sent her a bill for the delegation leader's lunch at the hospital and travel to and from the medical facility.
"I am to pay for the delegation leader that was to be watching my child?" Heather asked. "I spent about $6,000 for my daughter to come back in fear and (feeling) that she never wants to do a People to People "adventure" again."
A Kansas mom also told us her 17-year-old daughter lost several pounds on a recent People to People trip because the delegation leaders did not -- as promised address the teenager's severe food allergies and other medical issues.
"My daughter has asthma, a severe milk allergy, immune deficiency and is anemic," Karen D. of Louisburg, Kansas, told us. "If she eats or drinks too many dairy products it will trigger an asthma attack.
"I informed the organization of my daughter's health issues prior to her leaving and they assured me they could handle any medical issues."
During the trip, however, Karen's daughter called home and said she couldn't eat off the "required" People to People menu because it contained too many dairy products.
Karen immediately wired her daughter $300 for pay for food she could eat. The worried mom also sent an e-mail to the delegation leaders reminding them of her daughter's health issues.
The delegation leaders, however, ignored Karen's concerns. "She (my daughter) was never allowed to buy her own food. My daughter went up to the delegation leaders many times and said she couldn't eat what's on menu. But they said thats all you can haveyou have to eat off the People to People menu."
She added: "Instead of contacting me to see what we could do about this, they retaliated against my daughter by harassing her, insulting her dignity, character, and causing her asthma to flare up."
When Karen's daughter returned home, the 5' 7" inch teenager, who normally weighs 120 pounds, had dropped seven pounds.
"She's a tiny thing," Karen says. "She cannot afford to lose that weight. She also came home with raspy voice as well as shallow breathing, and for a week after the trip had to use her breathing machine for heavy duty treatments to get her lungs back on track."
In retrospect, though, Karen says she's lucky her daughter didn't suffer more serious health problems during -- and after -- the trip.
"I think about Tyler Hill and worry that could have been my daughter, too," says Karen, who is still trying to get answers from People to People about her concerns. "I could have gotten a call that said she had a serious asthma attack. And what would they (the delegation leaders) have done? These people need to be trained."
"I know I got very lucky."
ConsumerAffairs.com also confirmed that three American students traveling abroad on recent People to People trips went missing or were unaccounted for an unknown period of time. The Ambassadors Group is also facing a class action lawsuit, which alleges the organization's directors issued misleading and overly optimistic statements about the company's financial future.
ConsumerAffairs.com contacted People to People today regarding the Hill's statements and the recent complaints leveled against the organization. The company did not respond to our inquiries.
Back in Minnesota, Sheryl Hill offered some advice to parents who are considering letting their children participate in a student travel program.
"You have to check out the organization and its leaders," she said. "You have to ask tough questions. The leaders on Tyler's trip were senior leaders -- they had been on previous trips."
"You also need to find out the organization's alcohol policies. And make sure you have a passport so you can get your child (immediately) if you need to. If, at any point, you feel your child is in danger call the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)."
Hill and Grijalva also recommend that parents contact foreign police authorities to report abuse and then contact local, state and federal agencies to report child endangerment.
The U.S. State Department has a special Students Abroad Web site with more information and tips.
The State Department also has a Web site with information on what Americans should do if they become victims of a crime when traveling overseas.
More about People to People
People To People Leaders Allegedly Drank Beer While Student Was Dying...