If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at will change.
— Wayne Dyer

College students aren’t the first population that comes to mind when thinking about traditional summer camps for children; likewise, children don’t usually come to mind when thinking of higher education. However, as American philosopher Dr. Wayne Dyer said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at will change.” (Dyer, 2004). Visiting a college campus, particularly in the summer, often reveals a different picture than one might expect — participants under the age of 18 attending camps, conferences, and academic enrichment events. On-campus daycare centers, admissions visits, and pre-college academic programs also have participants who are considered minors. Over the past few years, an increased awareness of the number of minors present on college campuses is changing how higher education leaders are viewing these populations being served by their institutions. Previously on the fringe of the camping industry, youth programs in higher education settings are gaining ground as an important segment of the camp experience.

  • Youth programs, activities, and services include, but are not limited to:
  • Summer sport camps and clinics
  • Academic programs
  • Outdoor education through environmental centers
  • Children’s gardens at arboretums
  • Theater and other fine arts workshops

While some institutions sponsor their own camps, others lease the facilities to outside agencies to facilitate programs. Many of the country’s land grant institutions are also responsible for the oversight of their state’s 4-H programs, which could bring the number of children served annually at those schools into the hundreds of thousands.

National attention focused on the protection of minors in higher education resulted in an initial charge to campuses to increase education around child abuse recognition and prevention, tighten reporting requirements, and improve accountability. Campus leaders and youth program staff are committed to understanding and implementing professional standards for interacting with youth just as traditional summer camps have always done. As a result, campuses conducted internal examinations of their programs and processes to find opportunities to develop and strengthen those related to youth programming. Additionally, professional development opportunities that focus on risk management, compliance, and youth programming on campuses have become more widely available, adding to the resources campus youth program staff have at their fingertips.

Youth Protection Professionals in Higher Education

Concurrent with the increased awareness and training around youth protection in campus settings, a new professional position in higher education has emerged. Individuals in this position are responsible for overseeing the protection of minors participating in youth programs sponsored by their institutions. In August of 2013, four higher education youth protection professionals conducted a conference call to discuss the topic of minors on campus. While individual program coordinators have been managing youth programs for decades, the persons on the call were among the first to have the specific responsibility for overseeing the protection of minors across all programs and departments on their campuses. Through informal networking (for example, attending the American Camp Association’s national conference) and word of mouth, this group, now called the Youth Protection Network for Higher Education, has grown to over 150 professionals who have similar responsibilities within their respective institutions. Positions are housed within a variety of units ranging from compliance, general counsel, and risk management to student affairs, public safety, and outreach.

Challenges for Camps on Campus

Through conversations among group members, it was soon discovered that managing camps on campus presents unique challenges not necessarily faced by traditional summer camps. The first common observation was that while individual units and departments were conducting youth programs, many institutions did not have a centralized youth programming department. The initial task at hand for those being hired into these new positions was two-fold: First, put systems in place to track the number of programs and minors who participate; and second, review current policies to ensure appropriate standards were in place to protect participants and maintain consistency across all youth programs within an institution.

To more accurately identify the volume of programs and the number of children participating, many universities created or purchased database-style tracking systems. Often, these systems are referred to as “youth program registration inventories.” This allows for the identification and tracking of programming that is occurring across departments and in multiple campus locations. Individual program coordinators provide information to the database including:

  • Program name
  • Coordinator’s contact information
  • Program dates
  • Whether the program includes overnight accommodations
  • Anticipated number of children 
  • and staff
  • Website or marketing material information

With tracking systems in place, many schools are now reporting numbers of minors on campus that far outnumber their undergraduate enrollment, which has surprised many high-level university officials.
The second major challenge is that college and university campuses are open environments, meaning there are multiple entry points for staff and students, the general public, campus neighbors, and potentially uninvited guests. Additionally, youth programs are sometimes held in shared spaces with enrolled students or third-party programs serving adult populations. This raises the question of how access to minors is controlled as well as how minors participating in the programs are supervised and by whom. Thus, universities are now examining their hiring practices, training requirements, supervision procedures, waivers and releases, privacy, and policies for reporting suspected child abuse.

A primary goal of youth programming is, of course, to promote the safety of the participants. Obtaining background clearances and training employees on reporting suspected child abuse are top priorities during the hiring process. While background clearances are typically standard for most employees working within the higher education environment, many states have additional, specific background clearance requirements and training needs for youth program employees. A related challenge is addressing existing personnel, not originally hired to work with minors, who take on a new role within a university-sponsored youth program. Universities are developing mechanisms to identify and extend compliance requirements to such personnel who step into a role in campus programs for minors outside of their original job description. Program registration processes like the aforementioned inventory tracking systems can close this gap.

Campuses have operated youth programs for decades. In the past, campus youth programs had varying standards depending on which department sponsored the activity. Current practice models, based in part on the example of ACA standards, implement baseline policies across all campus programs for minors, with supplemental or additional procedures to support specific program needs.
Policies on the protection of minors will generally include the following:

  • Program/camp registration and approval from a centralized oversight office (with a clear definition of “program” or “camp,” as they differ from pre-admissions activities)
  • Compliance for personnel interacting with minor participants
    • The appropriate initial background clearances (and periodic re-checks as required by state laws or by campus policy)
    • General or specialized training (initial and at regular intervals once employed)
    • Agreement to follow policies (which may include an employee code of conduct)
  • Requirements and procedures for reporting suspected maltreatment or abuse of a minor at the state (external) and campus (internal) levels
  • Required legal forms for participation in a program and contents within forms, such as:
    • Waiver and release of liability for participants
    • Emergency contact, medical information, and permission to treat
    • Photo/media release
  • Penalties for noncompliance at the program and personnel level

In addition to a baseline policy, campuses are adopting additional guidelines for programs, which may include:

  • Participant-to-adult ratios (many use the ACA guidelines)
  • Information for parents on how to report concerns or reach their child during a program
  • Participant check-in/out procedures
  • Medication guidelines
  • Participant code of conduct
  • Injury reporting
  • Emergency planning

As colleges and universities develop and implement new policies, the next step is monitoring for compliance. This is often the responsibility of those newly designated youth programs oversight professionals. Once campuses have communicated and implemented policies, internal monitoring visits are a valuable tool to detect known and unknown risks, as well as adherence to policy. Individual program coordinators may be provided a checklist or pre-visit monitoring sheet to conduct a self-assessment in preparation for the visit (similar to the ACA accreditation process). On-site monitoring provides the program coordinator and the monitor an opportunity to assess operational effectiveness and to address gaps that may exist due to specific needs or logistics of a program.

ACA Supports Camps on Campus

The American Camp Association has been a valuable resource in the establishment of policy and standards for college and university camps. The commitment from ACA to include camps on campus as a growing segment of the youth camp experience is exciting for both groups. The collaborative effort between individuals in higher education who have common goals regarding oversight of youth programs and ACA’s support in the development of standards specifically related to the safety and protection of minors on college and university campuses will continue to strengthen the success of these programs across the country.

Just like traditional summer camps, institutions of higher education are committed to providing fun, safe, high-quality experiences for youth in a campus setting that encourage a sense of community and in which all participants are treated with dignity and respect. Camps on campus take advantage of university expertise to provide youth with positive experiences that increase knowledge and skills and develop connections to specific disciplines — whether they are educational, recreational, or athletic. The end result is lasting changes that positively impact the youth participants while also instilling a lifelong desire for learning — which is exactly what traditional summer camps strive to do!

Safety-related Questions to Ask
If you are considering involvement or are involved with a camp program on the campus of a higher education institution, consider the following questions with regard to program participant safety:
  1. What current policies and processes are in place at my institution (or the institution with which my program contracts) regarding programs that include minor participants? Who oversees those policies? Is my youth program in compliance?
  2. How does my campus (or the campus at which I conduct my program) monitor safety in programs with minor participants? What opportunities are there for improvements in our procedures?
  3. Who are the stakeholders involved in protecting minors participating in youth programs on our campus? How are we communicating with them?
For Further Information
For more information or to get involved in Camps on Campus initiatives, contact the ACA Membership Team or the Youth Protection Network for Higher Education.

Omar Andujar, MBA, CCEP, is the minor protection coordinator at the University of Connecticut. His position is in the Office of Audit, Compliance, and Ethics, and he oversees policies and process implementation related to the protection of minors involved in university activities. He can be reached at omar.andujar@uconn.edu.

Ellen Will, MS, is a program director at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center and an instructor in the Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management department at Penn State University. Ellen directs Outdoor School, a residential outdoor education experience for school children, and trains undergraduate students to be leaders for Shaver’s Creek programs, including Outdoor School. She can be reached at ellenwill@psu.edu.

Dawn Riddle, MS, is the protection of minors director at Vanderbilt University. Her position is in the Office of Risk and Insurance Management, and she oversees policies and process implementation related to minors participating in activities on campus and sponsored by VU. She can be reached at dawn.riddle@vanderbilt.edu.

Sandy Weaver, MS, is the youth program compliance specialist at Penn State University. Her position is in the Office of Ethics and Compliance, and she is responsible for coordinating compliance with the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law and university policies that impact employees, volunteers, and minors who participate in a variety of university youth programs across the Commonwealth. She can be reached at stw126@psu.edu.

Dyer, W.W. (2004). The power of intention: Learning to co-create your world your way. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc.