A camp's overarching goal should be running a mission-aligned, safe, and quality program in all facets. This includes the selection, hiring, training, and conduct of its staff. In this article, we will focus on staff working directly with campers — leading, supervising, and teaching.
Staff are the front line in advancing the mission of the camp, protecting the camp, and, most importantly, protecting the campers from harm. Issues arising from staff conduct or judgment can and do lead directly to injury or loss to campers, and inevitably, to injury or loss to the camp — loss of money, loss of reputation, and loss of business.
If staff fail, the camp fails. A complaint that the camp has not protected a child or has failed to meet expectations reflects on staff competency or judgment. Staff competency and judgment depend in large part on proper training, supervision, and the camp's policies.
This article focuses on the preparation and training of staff for perhaps the most important job of their lives. We refer to training issues from past articles and discuss staff training and policies that best prepare staff for their jobs — and their related legal implications. What follows pertains to all staff — including independent contractors, seasonal and full-time, volunteers1, trainees and veterans of past sessions, adults, and minors.2 At issue is the camp's staff training in the instruction and supervision of campers in specific activities and in the life of the camp, generally. We will not revisit wage and hour issues or Occupational Safety and Health laws, and encourage camp managers to seek assistance in that area from employment law specialists.3
II. Staffing Issues
We will refer readers to our past articles discussing staff policies and training. We will revisit some of those issues and identify other evolving and significant issues, based on changing laws and case law and evolving culture and technology.
A. Legal Implications
If a camp is sued, the allegations of wrongdoing will implicate all factors that credibly might have contributed to the loss. Staff performance will certainly be included in those factors. And, behind what staff did or didn't do, are a bundle of issues including hiring, retention, training and supervision, and related camp policies. The camp, as a defendant in a lawsuit, is vulnerable in all these areas. So, while camp managers must not be obsessed with the prospect of a lawsuit, they should be aware of staff issues and act reasonably in the development and monitoring of staff, including adherence, as required or appropriate, to ACA standards and prevailing practices.
Lawsuits might (but usually do not) name staff members as defendants (that is, parties from whom a plaintiff seeks compensation). Except in cases of an independent contractor, a camp is vicariously liable for the acts of its staff, committed in the course of employment. However, a camp can be liable for hiring a clearly unqualified independent contractor, or a contractor or anyone else causing harm, whom a court finds is legally acting as an employee or agent of the camp.4 Consider this example: if a camper is injured as a result of the alleged carelessness, inexperience, or inattentiveness of a camp employee, a camper (plaintiff) lawsuit might claim that the camp was negligent in hiring or training the employee (direct liability). Alternatively, the plaintiff may claim that the camp is responsible for the employee's negligent instruction or supervision of the injured camper, committed in the course of his/her employment (vicarious liability). This vicarious liability commonly extends to a camp's volunteer leaders or interns. The notion is that the employee or other representative is a logical extension of the camp and that the camp should therefore be responsible for its employees' acts or omissions occurring in the course of their work.
A camp has a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect campers from unreasonable risks of harm. Families rightfully expect the camp to manage the risks of camp life by identifying the risks and taking steps, as appropriate, to reduce the frequency and severity of losses arising from them. This can be tricky business, for, in most jurisdictions, a camp has no duty to eliminate the risks inherent in the camp experience, and has no liability for injuries resulting from those risks. The rationale for this inherent risk doctrine is that imposing liability for injuries resulting from these risks would discourage vigorous participation and reduce opportunities for learning and growth. Nonetheless, while camp families should expect and welcome the exposure of campers to new experiences, they have a low level of tolerance for injuries — and even disappointments to a child. The challenge to camp management is to manage those inherent and any other risks by sound operating policies and a well-trained staff.
Factors considered by the courts in deciding whether or not a camp or its staff has breached a duty of care include the existing laws, standards, prevailing practices, and, if they exist, the camp's in-house guidance (including policies or rules; collectively here, sometimes "guidance" or "policies"). A camp, therefore, should thoughtfully develop its policies — refreshing them regularly to promote the well-being of the campers; and train staff to understand and follow those policies. Importantly, camp management should articulate in its policies (and train staff) in how they can justify a deviation from camp guidance — in appropriate circumstances. A camp's (or its staff members') violation of the camp's policies is embarrassing and difficult to explain, and frequently moves the needle toward negligence.
B. Screening and Hiring
Applicants for staff positions will have a variety of skills and life experiences. Camp management's task is to carefully screen job applicants and strategically place, within its work force, those individuals most compatible with the camp mission, activities, and population. To achieve this compatibility, applicants and the camp must exchange information, so each can know what to expect and what is expected of them. Screening may include personal interviews, references, and background checks.
An important and current issue, particularly for camps working with minors, includes an aggressive effort to identify (and absent some unique circumstance, screen out) individuals whose records reflect misconduct, including, crucially, evidence of sexual misconduct (particularly targeted to minors). Interpersonal relationships — staff to staff, staff to camper, and camper to camper are among some of the most challenging issues facing camp management today.
As part of the screening process, an applicant should study (and perhaps be interviewed regarding) materials pertinent to the camp's history, goals, and traditions, which they are expected to protect and extend. The camp must be very clear with staff (and with camper families) on what it stands for and what it intends families to expect from the experience.
C. Staff Policies and Commitments
Hired staff should receive and learn camp policies. There are typically three vehicles for delivering this information to camps (whether delivered to staff electronically, or manually, in printed form). These include: 1) an employment agreement, 2) an employee handbook or manual, and 3) a staff training manual. Staff policies should be informed by applicable federal and state laws (wage and hour, labor, etc.) and reviewed by legal counsel well versed in applicable employment law.
[Note: Camps should consult with legal counsel regarding the laws of their particular jurisdictions that might allow "employment at will" — that is, an employment relationship that may be terminated at any time, for any reason, without legal consequences (with the exception, of course, of laws that may stand in the way, such as applicable state or federal anti-discrimination laws that prohibit termination based upon age, sex, race, or disability). Skilled employment counsel will explore these issues with camp management. It may be challenging under the laws of certain states to set out tasks and expectations, and the consequences of failing to perform satisfactorily (whether in an employment agreement, staff handbook, or otherwise), and, at the same time, maintain an employment-at-will relationship with the staff person. In states where this doctrine applies, a common practice is for the employee handbook, at least, to contain a statement articulating the at -will doctrine, and defining the intent of the handbook in light of that doctrine.]5
A camp typically utilizes an employment agreement to set out the term of employment, including dates of services, employment duties, and compensation. [Note: minors are not legally competent (with rare exceptions) to enter into an employment agreement (or any other binding contract) but they can, nevertheless, be called upon to adhere to and accept rules and a code of conduct, acknowledge that they have read and understood written materials and viewed videos. A careful camp will require some level of parental involvement in these arrangements with minor staff members].
The employee handbook customarily addresses policies that relate to the status of the employee (full time, part time, seasonal, or otherwise); vacation, sick, or other leave; workers' compensation or other insurance; background checks; drug testing; staff evaluations and employment discipline or termination; searches; and those entitled (or not) to benefits. Other issues include working hours and free time (including, during that free time, rules about leaving the camp premises, and, if permitted, the use of camp equipment and facilities).
In the handbook or a staff training manual, the camp should address what is required of staff in terms of appropriate relationships and conduct with other staff and campers (including after-camp contacts) and other matters pertinent to their services. These include policies regarding the delivery of camp services, curriculum, or activities (cabin and meal time, camping, horseback riding, backpacking, mountain bike riding, swimming) and associated instruction and supervision. Additional issues include the camp's policies regarding staff responsibility for documenting certain matters, incident response and other issues discussed later in this article.
D. Important Considerations in Crafting Camp Guidance
Because written policies (or other guidance) can have both legal and practical ramifications, it is important that whatever is written be carefully drafted, flexible (to the extent appropriate), and adhered to by staff in the way intended. It should be practical and easy to access. Further, particularly in today's "Millennial" culture, if written information is overwhelming, unrealistic, cumbersome, or unorganized, staff may simply not read (or ignore) it and end up not following the written guidance.
Particularly when crafting policies that involve a staff member's judgment, a camp should provide enough information to give staff guidance — but avoid making the policies so restrictive that staff are unnecessarily "boxed in." Consider that staff should understand the importance of following the camp's guidance, particularly its "zerotolerance" policies, but should also understand (and receive training on) the reality that their judgment may justify a deviation from the camp's guidance, in appropriate cases, as allowed by (and articulated in) the policies. In addition, staff (particularly seasoned staff) should have the opportunity to comment on the camp's guidance. If staff believe they have no voice or opportunity to influence a camp's guidance, their actions may ultimately undermine that guidance. Consider that staff are often an excellent judge of some of the specifics contained in a staff manual or other document, particularly program- or activity-specific information, and can provide input in the continued evolution of this guidance.
E. Pre-Camp Training6
Before campers arrive, the camp should, preferably, conduct an on-site camp training session (as an alternative or supplement, consider online opportunities — perhaps via a mobile app). This is an excellent opportunity for staff to meet each other, and their supervisors, and to learn the hierarchy of authority at the camp, including sources of assistance or guidance. As well, staff should learn about the camp's incident and emergency response procedures for incidents occurring on or off the camp's premises. Staff should learn the importance of the camp's documentation policies, directing the staff to complete logs, incident report forms, and other information regarding day-to-day camp matters, or specific incidents involving campers. Staff will also learn the process for reporting matters of interest and concern directly to camp management.
Staff must also understand what is expected of them in the area of supervision and instruction in various aspects of camp life — structured and unstructured activities and otherwise. Staff may require orientation to not only existing, but new activities and facilities — climbing walls, ziplines, and waterfront inflatables for example. Incoming staff should become familiar with the camp facilities and the surrounding environment — noting hazards and routes on the premises and its perimeter. Certainly, the training will include study of the camp policies, perhaps with opportunities to act out scenarios to understand application of the policies under various circumstances, or to be quizzed on content. Training should continue during the camp season, with intermittent opportunities to stress particular issues, address specific camper challenges, or to brush up on certain policies. Pre- and in-camp training curricula should be in writing, understood by staff and refreshed from time to time based on experiences and other learning. Training and policies put before staff will vary by age and assigned tasks, but all prioritize the campers' well-being.
F. Other Pre-Camp Preparation
Before the formal session begins, staff should become familiar with their assigned activities and develop rapport with others in their activity areas. Importantly, staff should review information collected on campers with whom they will be interacting to become familiar with specific behavior issues, health or medical needs, and related issues. Staff, including returning staff, should be alert to characteristics of today's camper — a bit immature in interpersonal relationships including with the opposite sex, perhaps not familiar with the outdoors, and carrying an array of allergy and behavior-modifying drugs.
G. Emerging Challenges
So what has recently emerged as significant in the area of camp policies? A few come to mind that we highlight below.
Consider developing guidance and training regarding the following:
- The camp's position regarding staff members' use of social media (including the camp's sites) before, during, and after camp — in interactions with campers, or in comments regarding the staff member's experiences at (or thoughts about) camp7;
- Camper "after-camp" contacts, including planned events (camp slide shows, informal gatherings), as well as staff-to-camper interaction outside the employment relationship8;
- All aspects of camper and staff interactions, particularly proactive training on issues involving sexual misconduct or bullying staff to staff, staff to camper, and camper to camper (including development of a code of conduct, understanding of the state in which the camp is located and the camp's reporting requirements (regarding abuse of minors) and other important issues)9;
- Staff taking photos or other images of campers10;
- Staff members' use of marijuana on or off duty, in light of a number of states' legalization of marijuana11;
- A camp's policies regarding a search of a camper's or staff member's belongings12;
- Staff off-duty time, including issues such as: where a staff member may go and with whom; and whether (and according to what rules/restrictions) staff members may use camp premises, vehicles and equipment during off-duty time.13
H. Consequences for a Staff Member's Violation of the Camp's Guidance
A camp should be clear with staff regarding the consequences for violating the camp's rules and policies, including the prospect of immediate termination with no prospect of rehire. Management should encourage staff to ask questions to avoid later misunderstandings. Again, the issue is the health and welfare of the campers in structured, supervised activities, and otherwise.
Also note that if a camp employs a strict "zero-tolerance" policy, but then ignores a staff member's violation of that policy, it sets the camp up for problems — both in the increased potential for incidents and injuries, and regarding its duty of care. A violation of the camp's own policies may, in the event of an injury or other loss, allow a plaintiff to successfully argue, without more, the violation of a duty of care owed to the injured person.
Further, if the camp has routinely failed to enforce consequences for staff members' violation of a camp's policy, and a serious injury occurs (say to a camper) resulting from a staff member's violation of that policy, it may subject the camp to findings of gross negligence or other more egregious misconduct (as the camp knew of the danger — clear from its own policy — and had a history of not enforcing it).
Lastly, if the camp is inconsistent in the enforcement of its policies (for example, if a camp terminates employment for one staff member's violation of a policy, but overlooks others' violation of the same policy), the camp may be more vulnerable to a staff member's claims of wrongdoing or wrongful termination, whether legitimate or not.
III. Relevant American Camp Association (ACA) Standards
For camps that are accredited (and pertinent, even, to those that are not), the ACA standards address various aspects of staff screening, hiring, training and other issues. Currently, all ACA-accredited camps are accredited under the 2012 version of the standards (as updated over the past several years). As camps are visited in the future, they will follow the 2019 version of ACA standards.
We will refer to select standards from the ACA Accreditation Process Guide, 2012 Edition, principally the HR (human resources), OM (operational management), and HW (health and wellness) sections, and identify the corresponding, or pertinent, sections of the Accreditation Process Guide, 2019 Edition, AD (administration), HW, and ST (staff qualification, training, and supervision). Also referenced are standards in the various program sections of standards. Camp managers must be familiar with the standards — these and others — for, in the event of an incident and claim, careful legal counsel, typically through a selected industry expert, will turn to those standards for evidence of a violation to support a claim of the camp or staff member's negligence or other wrongful conduct. Note that although ACA accreditation is voluntary, unaccredited camps are wise to review and comply, as appropriate, with the standards — and if not, to have a credible reason why not — should they be questioned by a plaintiff's expert about those standards in the context of litigation.14
Camp management should read, understand, and share these and other pertinent ACA standards (whether mandatory or not) — in conjunction with their Contextual Education comments (directly following each standard), with other staff, as appropriate.
Hiring policies, including screening requirements (criminal background checks and references) and job descriptions for new and returning staff.
Accreditation Process Guide, 2012 Edition (APG v.2012): Standards HR.3, HR.4, HR.5, HR.6
Accreditation Process Guide, 2019 Edition (APG v.2019): Standards: AD.24, AD.25, AD.26, AD.27, AD.28
Training, including familiarizing staff with the camp's purpose, developmental needs of campers, the objectives, safety, and others issues of program activities, behavior management, recognition, prevention and reporting of abuse, and emergency procedures and staff roles in dealing with them.
APG v.2012: HR.12, HR.17, OM.8, OM.9, PD.1
APG v.2019: CR. 2, ST.25, ST.30, ST.40, AD.19, AD.20
Personnel policies, including time off, evaluations conditions for severance, work rules and personal conduct.
APG v.2012: Standards: HR.7
APG v.2019: Standards: AD.29
Staff/camper interaction, ratios and supervision matters.
APG v.2012: Standards: HR.8, HR.8B, HR.9, HR.16, PD.22, PD.39, PA.35, PT.4, PT.13, PT.17
APG v.2019: Standards: ST.29, ST.35, ST.36, ST.38, ST.39, ST.41
Pre-camp training for specific job requirements.
APG v.2012: Standards: HR.10, HR.12, HR.13, HR.14
APG v.2019: Standards: ST.25, ST.26,
Training in the recognition and value of diversity.
APG v.2012: Standards: HR. 11
APG v.2019: Standards: CR.1
Staff responsibilities for general camp activities including "general and unstructured" camp activities. These include cabin time, meals, and personal hygiene periods.
APG v.2012: Standards: HR.15
APG v.2019: Standards: ST.28
Staff/camper interactions, stressing the emotional safety of the campers, behavior management and discipline, sensitive issues, and the recognition of bullying.
APG v.2012: Standards: HR.16, HR.17, HR.18
APG v.2019: Standards: ST.29, ST.30, ST.31
Staff Supervisor training.
APG v.2012: Standards: HR.19
APG v.2019: Standards: ST.27
Staff time off. Identifying when staff do not have assigned camp responsibilities, and are not expected to be at a particular place or performing camp related tasks. However, note that it might be argued that counselor staff, and perhaps others, are never off duty if they are "off duty" and on premises (in event they observe a child who needs help).
APG v.2012: Standards: HR.21
APG v.2019: Standards: AD.30
Staff training in their response to first aid and emergency care, including the use of supplies and equipment, and requiring that staff be informed of campers' special/specific needs.
APG v.2012: Standards: HW.4 and HW.13
APG v.2019:: Standards: ST.21 and HW.10, HW.11
Identifying that staff be advised of the camp's policy regarding possession of certain personal property, including drugs and alcohol, vehicles, and weapons.
APG v.2012: Standards: OM.4
APG v.2019: Standards: AD.16
Incident reports, staff training in steps to take in the event of an intruder, responsibilities in the event of an emergency, and required familiarity with safety regulations and emergency procedures, missing persons, communications in case of emergencies and managing campers in public places (off campus).
APG v.2012: Standards: OM.5, 0M.7, OM.8, OM.9, OM.10, OM.11, OM.12
APG v.2019: Standards: AD.14, AD.18, AD.19, AD.20, ST.21, ST.22, ST.23, ST.24, ST.25, ST.40
Standards related to staff training, qualifications, and duties in teaching and leading various camp activities.
APG v.2012: Standards: Various PD, PA and PT Standards
APG v.2019: Several standards in ST; various PD and PA Standards
Although selecting, training, and effectively using camp staff can appear a daunting task, it is critical for camps to carefully consider the issues. Understand the camp's legal duties and thoughtfully develop camp policies — and train and teach staff on those policies — keeping in mind the current "Millennium" culture. Importantly, carefully consider applicable law, ACA standards and other practices in the industry. These steps are consistent with the camp's ongoing effort to run a quality program!
*This article contains general information only and is not intended to provide specific legal advice. Camps and related organizations should consult with a licensed attorney regarding application of relevant state and federal law, as well as considerations regarding their specific business or operation.
Charles R. (Reb) Gregg is a practicing attorney in Houston, Texas, specializing in outdoor recreation matters and general litigation. He can be reached at 713-982- 8415, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org; rebgregg.com.
Catherine Hansen-Stamp is a practicing attorney in Golden, Colorado. She consults with and advises camps and other recreation and adventure program providers on law, liability and risk management issues. She can be reached at 303-232-7049, or by email at email@example.com; hansenstampattorney.com.
1 For a full discussion of volunteers, see our Fall 2009 CampLine article: "Using Volunteer Staff Members — Look Before You Leap: Legal Ramifications."
2 A camp faces some specific legal doctrines when employing minor staff, whether via a counselor in training program or otherwise. A camp should carefully consider, with its legal counsel, issues such as assignment of appropriate tasks, supervision, and applicable state or federal labor laws. See, comments on minor staff, for example, our Fall, 2015 CampLine article: "Off Duty and the Camp Is My Playground. (What Could Possibly Go Wrong?)" ACAcamps.org/resource-library/campline/duty-camp-my-playground-what-could-go-wrong.
3 See previous CampLine articles: R. Forsht, Fall 2017 "FLSA Update" ACAcamps.org/resource-library/campline/ fair-labor-standards-act-update; E. Boulukos, Fall 2016 " The FLSA, Overtime and Camps: Finding a Path to Compliance" ACAcamps.org/resource-library/campline/flsa-overtime-camps-finding-path-compliance, Gregg and Hansen-Stamp, Fall 2007 "Avoiding Staff Surprises" and Fall 2004 "Newly Adopted Labor Regulations."
4 For a full discussion of these issues, see our Spring 2005 CampLine article: "Important Staffing Issues for Running a Quality Camp Program."
5 For a discussion of the ‘at will' doctrine, the use of an employment agreement, versus other vehicles for imparting important information to staff, supra, note 2, "Avoiding Staff Surprises."
6 See our Spring 2009 CampLine article addressing training topics: "Staff Training and Risk Management — Key Risk Information for Front Line Staff."
7 See our Spring, 2014 CampLine article: "Camp Staff Use of Electronic Devices and Social Media: Some Issues and Solutions" ACAcamps.org/resource-library/campline/camp-staff-use-electronic-devices-socialmedia-some-issues-solutions.
8 See our Spring, 2012 CampLine article: "After-Camp Contacts between Campers and Staff: A Problem? Whose?"
9 See our Fall, 2012 CampLine article: "Sexual Abuse: Liability Issues Revisited" and consider these resources: kanakukchildprotection.org/home; abusepreventionsystems.com.
10 Supra, note 6.
11 See our Winter, 2018 CampLine article: "Marijuana Revisited."
12 See our Fall, 2014 CampLine article: "Understanding a Camp's Right to Search."
13 Supra, note 2.
14 See our Spring, 2011 CampLine article: "Standards – Friend or Foe? Revisited" ACAcamps.org/resource-library/caarticles/standards-friend-or-foe-revisited.