Institutions of higher education (IHEs) are often focal points of community activity, and inevitably attract all members of the public to various events and programs that take place on campus, including the youngest—and most vulnerable—community members. As a result, IHEs must commit to providing a safe environment for any minor on campus. To do so, there are some best practices that will lessen the risk of harm befalling minors involved in IHE-sponsored activities, using campus facilities, or simply visiting campus.
Applicable Federal and State Law
The federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) provides funding and guidance to states in support of prevention, assessment, investigation, prosecution, and treatment of sexual abuse of children. To be eligible for grants under CAPTA, states are required to have laws that, among other things, include provisions or procedures mandating that certain individuals (generally known as "mandatory reporters") make reports to a state-run central registry when they have actual knowledge of, or have reasonable cause to suspect, child abuse and neglect. While the specifics differ by state, mandatory reporters almost always include social workers, teachers, school personnel, healthcare workers, counselors, mental health professionals, childcare providers, medical examiners, and law enforcement officers. Several states also mandate that directors, employees, and volunteers at entities providing organized activities for children be mandatory reporters. In addition to state requirements, IHEs also often have policies that broaden the scope of employees who have mandatory reporting obligations on campus. There are any number of activities—such as camps, sponsored programs, school field trips, or families visiting campus—that would put mandatory reporters at IHEs in contact with minors, and, accordingly, potentially expose them to the responsibility of having to make a report. As such, mandatory reporters—under state law and IHE policy—must be well trained and vigilant. While the exact training requirements for mandatory reporters differ by state, trainings should always include how to identify signs of abuse, how to respond to a disclosure of abuse by a minor, how to report those situations to the appropriate authorities, and how to prevent abuse. This training can be found on state government websites and must be completed by all relevant personnel.
Most states also have laws that regulate qualification requirements for employees and volunteers who work directly with minors, such as licensing or experience requirements, or the ability to pass a background check. Since many IHEs will sponsor programs and camps on their campus, and allow unaffiliated youth programs to use campus facilities, all schools must make efforts to ensure compliance with these state laws. For example, in New York, N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. Tit. 10 § 7-2.5 covers "camps" and dictates educational qualification requirements for camp directors and age requirements for counselors, supervisors, and lifeguards; establishes mandatory camper-counselor ratios; and mandates a camp safety plan. New York Pub. Health L. § 1392-A also requires that all operators of children's overnight camps run background checks against the national sex offender registry for all employees. Whether required by law or not, IHEs should require criminal background checks for all employees and volunteers who work directly with minors and ensure that none are registered sex offenders or have other related problematic criminal history. Non-affiliated organizations and programs operating on campus should also be required to run criminal and sex offender background checks on all their employees and volunteers as a prerequisite to gaining access to the IHE's facilities.
How to Establish Clear Written Guidelines
Outside of the legal requirements under federal and state law, IHEs should implement policies that set clear expectations and ground rules that adult employees and agents of the school must follow when interacting with minors on campus, whether part of an IHE-sponsored organization or not. These policies should:
- Set behavioral expectations for adults interacting or supervising minors, such as prohibiting the use of profanity, sexual or sexualized activity, or anything that could be perceived as abusive behavior in the presence of a minor. Additionally, adult supervisors should be trained on recognizing and preventing bullying or abuse between minors and on the particular mental health issues that are commonly associated with minors.
- Designate the type of physical contact that is appropriate between minors and adults.
- Prohibit private, one-on-one interactions between minors and adults by ensuring that all interactions are in view of another adult who can easily observe and intervene. Where there is not another adult immediately present, one-on-one interactions should be conducted in a public space.
- Prohibit the use of bathrooms and locker rooms by adults when minors are present. When minors use these facilities, an adult should be in earshot.
- Prohibit private communication with minors outside of the given program, including but not limited to telephone, text, email, and social media accounts.
- Prohibit minors from being transported in personal vehicles. If the need for transportation is inevitable, consent should be obtained from the minor's guardian, and at least one other adult must be present at all times.
This list is not exhaustive, and IHEs should tailor these policies to best fit their particular programs and needs. Should your IHE have any additional questions or require guidance on crafting policies to protect minors on campus, please contact the authors of this article or any other member of Venable's Higher Education or Labor and Employment practice groups.