The demand for high-quality academic, enrichment and athletic programs for minors continues to grow. In response, many colleges and universities are expanding the ways in which they serve minors and their communities, through fee-based programs, mentoring and volunteer opportunities and partnerships with K-12 schools.
Much of this growth has occurred quickly and organically. As a result, existing policies may focus on important basics such as liability releases, background checks and suspected child abuse and neglect reporting. But these policies may fall short and fail to address the more practical risks regularly facing program staff and may not take into consideration applicable federal and state laws and case law developments that can impact program operations.
To reduce legal and reputational exposure in this high-risk area and ensure high-quality programming and positive experiences for minors and parents, we encourage institutions to use 2017 to take inventory of their programs and related policies serving minors. At a minimum, we suggest your institution address the following five risk areas in 2017.
- Health and Safety. Ensure health and safety policies adequately cover privacy and confidentiality of minors’ health information, ever-changing immunization requirements, emergency and non-emergency medical conditions and the administration of medication. Ensure forms and authorizations are clear and consistent with applicable policies and laws. Make sure adult program participants have access to training and resources that explain how to respond to medical issues, administer medication, utilize relevant forms and liaise with parents.
- Accommodations. Develop policies that address the accommodations process for minors with disabilities. Ensure these policies are consistent with the appropriate legal standards that apply to minors served by higher education institutions (which can differ from adult students). Consider developing a policy or guidelines for accommodating transgender and gender non-conforming minors that addresses names, pronouns, and gender markers; gendered facilities (bathrooms, changing stalls, locker rooms); dress code expectations; use of gender-based activities; and privacy and support for minors.
- Supervision. Establish generally applicable guidelines that cover: preferred adult-to-minor ratios that are age and activity appropriate; professionalism and conduct expectations for adult program participants; requirements for trips and transportation of minors; handling arrivals, departures and mid-program pick-ups that are age appropriate; and proper monitoring of minors’ internet use.
- Behavior and Discipline. Develop guidelines that explain behavior expectations for minors and their parents/guardians, as well as the consequences for not meeting those expectations. Policies should be separate from policies directed to adult students, as those may not take into account differences in discipline approaches and philosophies given the age difference.
- Parents/Guardians. Consider developing guidelines that include general parameters for parent/guardian observation and participation in program activities and how to handle parent/guardian custody questions when they arise.
What this means to you? Take inventory of your institution’s programs for minors from formal fee-based enrichment and athletic programs to more informal programs (e.g., mentoring, volunteering, lab tours offered by faculty, hosting minors for campus visits). Assessing your programs for minors is critical to avoiding potential liability and ensuring high-quality programming. Having helped manage the legal exposure and reputational damage when a child is harmed or when parental expectations or legal requirements are not met, we recommend program organizers work closely with legal counsel to consider the varying legal landscapes that may apply differently to the types of programs offered. Ensuring appropriate and consistent policies and practices will mitigate risk and safeguard program quality and institutional reputation.