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American attacked in Cancun underscores importance of spring break safety

A spring break packed with warm beaches and partying until all hours has increasingly become a reward for tens of thousands of college students every year. But those breaks can be far from carefree, as one young American found out.

Joseph "Zeke" Rucker had gone to Cancun in 2010 for a relaxed holiday before starting law school, but less than a day after his arrival, a brutal, as-yet unsolved apparent attack left him with permanent injuries.

Rucker and his family told the TODAY Show that the attack came outside his hotel when he was resting on a lounge by the pool after a night spent clubbing. He had gone to Mexico without any particular spring break safety concerns: “No, not at all. I mean, everyone does this, right? How could it possibly hurt someone?”

It’s true that tens of thousands of students party in Cancun annually without harm. But Rucker wasn’t so lucky: He was found by that hotel pool unconscious with multiple skull fractures. He remembers nothing of what happened, but his parents say they’ll never forget the phone call from a doctor who told them that their son was on a ventilator and near death.

The hotel never reported the attack, according to Cancun police.

“You just can’t believe it and everything become surreal form that point on,” Annie Rucker, Joseph's mom, said, “and you’re just living in a nightmare.

The organization Fight Back! On Spring Break says that while students should have fun, they must remain cautious on spring break, especially when drinking alcohol (There is no evidence this played a part in Rucker’s situation.) According to a University of Wisconsin study, 75 percent of college males and 43 percent of females reported being intoxicated on a daily basis during spring break, the organization says.

Erin Weed, founder of the organization, says drinking or drugging and any sort or mood altering substance is going to affect one’s personal judgments.

“Personal safety comes down to smart decisions,” Weed told TODAY.com. “We don’t want to be victim blaming, but at the same time we do live in a world where we must acknowledge people with bad intentions. We don’t need to be paranoid, but we always need to have a safety plan, whether on campus or in Mexico.”

Fight Back! offers the following tips for students to protect themselves:

  • Be responsible. Pace yourself if you choose to drink, and avoid hard alcohol or other drinks that are powerful and have fast effects. (And remember that drunks make easy targets.)
  • If you do decide to drink, know the liquor laws of wherever you’ll be vacationing. Drinking and driving is always dangerous, so avoid this by having a safe mode of transportation home planned before you go out.
  • Try to go the ATM in groups, but avoid being complacent about safety because you’re traveling in numbers. Also try to go during daylight hours. When you approach the ATM, do a full 360 degree scan, looking completely around you to see if anyone is hanging out where they shouldn’t be. When punching in your pin number, use your other hand to cover the keypad. Always be on the lookout for anyone suspicious. If someone is creeping you out, go to another ATM.

Rucker remained in a coma for weeks after his attack. It took months for him to walk and talk again. Law school was put on hold for him to relearn the basics.

“I was certainly brain damaged, you know,” he said. “If I were to describe how I was, it was like I was sort of a small child.”

Mexican police told TODAY that Rucker’s case is unusual, and indeed, Cancun’s tourist beaches are exempt from a U.S. State Department’s warning about travel to Mexico. But that doesn’t mean Mexican tourist hot spots are immune from the troubles roiling that country. Last week, 22 cruise ship passengers were robbed at gunpoint while ashore in the tourist haven of Puerto Vallarta.

“To an American, it's surreal that something could happen like it did to me,” Rucker said. “And basically, no one cares. The hotel doesn't care, the police don't care and there was no real justice.”

Weed says that is key to keep in mind.

“Many times students say what happens on spring break, stays on spring break,” she said. “This is a very popular moniker. Clearly based on this example, it’s just not true.”

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