Time for an audit of your ‘minors on campus’ policy?
Throughout the academic year, and especially during the summer months, colleges and universities host thousands of minors on campus. To be clear, we’re not talking about the 17-year-old college student who turns 18 during their freshman year. Rather, we have in mind the 13-year-old who attends a sports camp, residential leadership program, art class or other extracurricular activity.
When parents enroll such a 13-year-old in a campus-based experience, they make the assumption that the program is safe and suitable. Of course, their larger goal is for the child to gain independence, learn new skills, make friends and discover hidden talents—and most of the time, that’s exactly what happens. However, as we’ve seen in various national headlines, campus-based programs can also have different outcomes.
Considering the needs of minors
The challenge is that most university employees, including those in the general counsel’s office, spend their days focused on adult college students. Universities have innumerable policies that apply to the typical 18- to 22-year-old student, and many universities simply apply the same policies to kids. “We have a student code of conduct,” the reasoning goes, “so we’ll just make sure that all kids on campus are subject to the same expectations.” The problem: Policies for college students don’t consider the needs of minors.
For example, college students obviously don’t need supervision while walking from place to place on campus; thus, supervision wouldn’t even be mentioned in a student code of conduct. Along the same lines, college students can choose what time to return to their dorms at night. Without specifically analyzing the unique needs of minors on campus, university policymakers wouldn’t have these considerations on their radar screens.
Program administrators should regularly ask themselves: “Does this seem safe?” If the answer is ever “no,” then the university should implement a policy and training to reduce the risk.
Moreover, programs for minors are subject to their own laws and regulations. If a university program falls within a particular state’s definition of a camp, then it would be subject to state licensing requirements and camp regulations. Likewise, if a program falls within a state’s definition of a childcare center, it would be subject to a host of other requirements.
Regardless of whether a program is subject to state regulations, policies for minors should comply with best practices for youth programs, with an emphasis on risk elimination, prevention and mitigation. Below is a checklist of policies that colleges and universities can use to initiate a compliance program for minors on campus or audit an existing one.
Keep in mind that every youth program and campus is different and a particular program might entail a risk that no checklist can foresee and only university staff fully appreciate, so we recommend a simple test in addition to policies. Program administrators should regularly ask themselves: “Does this seem safe?” If the answer is ever “no,” then the university should implement a policy and training to reduce the risk.
Checking the three major risk categories
Broadly speaking, there are three major risk categories related to campus-based programs for minors: sexual abuse and misconduct; medical issues that cause a major injury or fatality; and improper supervision that causes a major injury or creates an opportunity for bullying or abuse. This list provides some of the essential policies to consider.
- Sexual abuse and misconduct: Unfortunately, people with bad intentions toward children are often drawn to working in youth programs. Strong policies and background checks will make your program unattractive to them. Among the policies to prevent sexual abuse and misconduct is “rule of three.” It ensures that a staff member is never alone with a minor: Three people must be present at all times. This is one of the most important policies to prevent abuse and reportable events. Not only does it protect students, but it also protects staff from false allegations. Beyond the rule of three, a good practice is for staff to interact with minors in public spaces and in full view of others whenever possible.
Your staff may be mandated reporters, and they should know their obligations under your state’s mandated reporter laws. Staff members should also receive abuse prevention and identification training, which includes training about how to identify red flags in the behavior of other staff members.
Policies should also address the three categories of romantic relationships: staff and minor relationships, minor and minor relationships, and college student and minor relationships. Again, staff training is important. To prevent inappropriate relationships and other supervision issues, universities should also consider their oversight of student housing. If students stay in traditional dorms with two students per room, for example, universities might consider an open-door policy and strong staff supervision while the students are awake. This includes having an adequate ratio of supervisors to minors on each floor, with the details of the ratio depending on the age of the minors.
- Medical issues: Minors will come to your program with a variety of medical needs, including major allergies, diabetes and mental health challenges. Minors will also have unexpected medical needs once the program begins, such as fractures, environmental allergies and gastrointestinal issues.
Among the essential policies to protect them are: Have a medical release and permission to treat form allowing staff to make medical decisions on participants’ behalf; have health information about each participant, including strong data security protocols; consider having all medications stored under lock and key and administered by a medical professional, but students should always have immediate access to EpiPens and emergency inhalers; know participants’ allergies and ensure the campus is equipped to handle them; have a clear plan for medical emergencies; have a policy to communicate quickly and transparently with parents regarding medical issues.
- Improper supervision: Appropriate supervision is one of the most important concerns when working with minors. Without an adequate staff presence, students can engage in bullying, experience preventable injuries in unsupervised settings, and run into countless other challenges. If a minor is injured or alleges abuse or bullying, parents will demand to know what supervision looked like at the time of the incident. Appropriate supervision by well-trained staff prevents the vast majority of issues and ensures a safe program.
Following are among the key supervisory considerations and questions to address. During classes and formal programs, participants are supervised by instructors. Who supervises the kids when they are in between classes and other scheduled programs? Universities should have a formal system to account for all participants throughout the day. What is the supervision ratio of staff to participants? Minors should be signed out by an authorized parent or guardian when they leave campus. The university should also have a policy to find a missing minor. Nighttime supervision is another important consideration.
Programs that involve off-campus trips should have specific supervision policies for public places, including public bathrooms, and account for participant medications and students who have severe food allergies. Also, whenever minors are transported by the program, drivers should be appropriately qualified with clean driving records, and vehicles should be safe and well-maintained.
Another important consideration on college campuses is how shared space is managed between adults and minors. Likewise, universities should have clear policies regarding interactions between college students and minors.
Bullying is another key supervision concern. The stronger the supervision, the less likely bullying is to occur. If a participant does make a bullying allegation, then the program should have a policy on how to investigate and react.
If your program involves water activities, participants should be swim-tested and supervised by trained lifeguards. Finally, some programs have minors sign a code of conduct by which they agree to abide by all program policies and report unsafe conditions and certain types of misconduct.
Training, vetting program and campus staff
Of course, the policies described above are only as strong as the people responsible for implementing them. Without competent staff who receive proper training, these policies cannot be effective. Considerations related to staff are not limited to program staff who are directly involved with participants. The maintenance person who cleans the hall where the participants live should be properly vetted and trained. The same goes for other staff who are in close contact with minors but are only indirectly involved with the program. Staff should be fingerprinted, background checked, and checked on sex offender registries. They should also have multiple reference checks and multiple interviews.
Catherine Guttman-McCabe and Isaac Mamaysky are partners in Potomac Law Group.