Aligning with the Emerging Field of Youth Protection in Higher Education

Lindsay Meyer Bond, Youth Program Consultant | The Ohio State University and Executive Director | Higher Education Protection Network

James Herten, Graduate Student | Cleveland State University and Membership Specialist | Higher Education Protection Network

 

A Whole New World: Youth Protection in Higher Education

Running camps on campus or other properties affiliated with a college or university is not like running camp at the local YMCA or adventure course. You might be surprised to know that there are likely many more minors running around at your college or university besides those in your camp programs. In the midst of camp season, it can be hard to notice anything but your own camp! But most colleges and universities interact with more minors than college students (including undergrad and grad students). No way, you say? At Ohio State University, there are approximately 60,000 students and 40,000 faculty and staff — and more than 700,000 minors participate in Ohio State programming annually. This includes 4-H, camps, instructional programs, athletics, shadowing, internships, and more.

I remember running a “traditional” summer camp in the middle of an urban campus. There were no high ropes courses, no quaint cabins, no s’mores, but instead dorm keys, changing in the same locker rooms as college students, and open-access campuses. It was easy to feel isolated from my campus colleagues, because my focus wasn’t on research and academics. And it was easy to feel isolated among other camp directors, because they are likely not dealing with the issue of open access, or public areas where unknown adults are always around. At Ohio State, there weren’t even policies on how often my staff needed to be background-checked. Luckily, the American Camp Association gave me the guidance that I needed. Then the world was shocked by Jerry Sandusky, and universities across the nation sprang into action and created youth protection policies. It’s been five years since many of these policies came to fruition. Now, we are starting to see trends emerge in what youth protection in higher ed means exactly.

The Emergence of Trends

When analyzing the youth protection policies of members of the Higher Education Protection Network (HEPNet), many common themes emerge. Of the 127 member institutions of HEPNet, the leading voice in youth protection for higher education, 117 are shown to have a university policy exclusively for youth protection. Reporting of known or suspected child abuse or neglect, the central pillar of any child protective effort, can be found in a clear majority of these policies with very similar language including the use of the words must, require, mandatory, and shall. Additional policy requirements commonly found across higher ed include background checks, staff training, and requirements for third parties using university facilities. The inclusion of these three elements is a sign that colleges and universities are beginning to recognize the need for increased oversight in the preparation for minor participants to step onto their campus and affiliated properties. This is a vast improvement from where things were only a few short years ago and should be hailed as incredibly positive steps.

If we want to be completely transparent in the analysis of existing policies, then special attention must be drawn to two primary areas of concern: medical issue management and one-on-one interactions. The inherent risks associated with minors regarding health and wellness always seem to be fresh on the minds of parents at preprogram meetings; yet somehow, this important point of emphasis can be brushed aside by programs. While it may not be entirely necessary for every program associated with a college or university to be aware of the particular medical needs of each of their participants, it is strongly recommended that programs require a basic medical history, at the very least, to safeguard against any preventable medical emergencies.

One-on-one interactions, on the other hand, should be addressed in all programming. All individuals who interact with minors are at some risk of having their interactions with those minors be misinterpreted. It is critical for the safety of minors and for the risk management of the university to understand that one-on-one interactions increase that risk. While one-on-one interactions should not be viewed as the antithesis of a good program, as bonds between staff and volunteers and minors are often central to making a program memorable. However, individuals must be trained to identify problematic interactions including one-on-one interactions, and if one-on-one interactions are necessary, they should be within plain view of others.

 

Higher Education Protection Network Bench marking data for universities

Alignment with Emerging Trends

These statistics are informative and just the tip of the iceberg in how to protect the youth entrusted to our care. I have transitioned from a camp director at Ohio State to the youth protection professional at Ohio State. During my first year in that role, a finance person walked up to me after an informational meeting and said “My dean says we need to make money this summer, so I have to run a camp. What do I need to know?” This wasn’t the last time that I was asked this question. I had a false perception that all camps ran like my old ACA-accredited camp. Haha, the joke was on me! Not every camp on campus is going to become accredited, but resources are still needed to protect minors, protect those interacting with them, protect the reputation of your program, and protect your institution. Having minors on campus is a top-tier risk at many institutions, but youth protection can be easier said than done. However, ACA’s Camps on Campus group understands you! You are not in an isolated bubble; your peers get what you’re going through.

Another valuable tool in your toolbox is the previously mentioned Higher Education Protection Network (HEPNet). HEPNet is a professional community focused on protecting vulnerable populations by providing programming and resources for those in higher education who interact with minors. HEPNet members include camp directors, youth protection professionals, legal counsel, risk management staff, and individuals from other disciplines. The diverse backgrounds of the membership provide a holistic approach to youth protection through a multitude of benefits, including an annual conference. We’re all in this together, and we are better together. Now keep calm — camp is here!