Universities realize that they are youth-serving organizations: a starting point for creating safety policies


by Amy Tiemann PhD

The Penn State child abuse scandal opened the eyes of college administrators across the country. How could Jerry Sandusky molest children for more than a decade within programs that operated in the facilities of the revered Penn State football program? The answer to that question is a complicated one to be explored elsewhere, but the scandal has made colleges and universities across the country aware that the are actually youth-serving institutions as well. This is a real wake-up call, because colleges do not think of themselves this way. Most undergraduates are at least over the age of 18, if not 21. So while colleges may be used to dealing with alcohol and drug problems, and the issue of sexual assault on campus (still an unfolding story), they are not used to thinking about how to protect children who are participating in programs on campus.

Think about how many different child-serving programs operate on college campuses: summer sports camps, music, arts, or drama programs, summer school, and internships of all kinds, including opportunities to work in research labs or other faculty-supervised projects.

A parent might think, “It would be great for my child to get to be in a soccer camp at State U” and even be attracted by the university’s brand and reputation. But in reality, parents should never just assume that because a program is hosted at a college or university that there are rigorous policies in place. Or any policies at all. Many camps on college campuses operate quite independently of the school. Even if a college coach offers a camp in the summer, that camp may not be covered by school policy.

Universities across the country are scrambling to deal with the reality of children on campus. UNC’s Vice Provost for Academic Initiatives, Dr. Carol Tresolini, graciously agreed to speak with me about the process that the University of North Carolina has gone through in the past year, creating new recommendations through their Task Force on Minors on Campus. Their first task was to catalog the programs existing on campus, which was a major undertaking in itself. It turns out that there are about 130 programs on the Chapel Hill campus that children participate in, including 30 residential (overnight) programs. That means there are thousands of children per year going through programs that are led on campus. Of course this is a wonderful resource for the community that we want to see thrive. The Minors on Campus task force is now developing policy recommendations so that there is oversight into the safety of children on campus when participating in programs where their parents are not there to directly supervise them.

Since colleges and universities may be caught by surprise by the developing awareness of just how many children are being served by the campus community, I want to share some basic principles about child safety that colleges and universities should consider when developing policies for hosting children on campus. I want to thank Dr. Tresolini for our conversation, which helped me frame this list, but I take responsibility for the content.


Universities don’t typically think of themselves as youth-serving organizations. Realizing that the are responsible for the safety of kids on campus is the first step.

If there is not already a policy in place addressing the safety of children on campus, the university should develop one.

Child abuse and sexual abuse can take place in any organization–any school, any camp, even in “the best” organizations. As a youth-serving organization the university should take an active role in making sure that programs run on campus follow child-safety procedures.

A difficult yet essential fact to grapple with is that while the vast majority of people who work with children have good intentions, it is unfortunately also true that abusers will actively seek out jobs that give them access to children. Jerry Sandusky is an extreme example of this. He developed his charity The Second Mile which gave him extensive access to very vulnerable children, whom he then abused. But all coaches, camp counselors, and teachers are in a position of great responsibility since they work with kids.

At the end of this post there are resources for developing child-protection policies, and model policies to consider. Some basic principles include:

Background checks for staff working with children are necessary, but not sufficient.

Beyond background checks, policies for staff behavior should be clear and understood by everyone, and enforced. See the Y policy for an example.

Rules should ban “grooming” behavior. It is both challenging and illuminating to realize that while we may not easily be able to observe actual abuse happening, we may see grooming behavior, and breaches of those rules should be taken very seriously. Redwoods Group’s excellent graphic spells out these principles:


I believe strongly that staff working with youth should be required to have basic sexual abuse prevention and awareness training, such as Darkness 2 Light’s “Stewards of Children” training. This training takes about 3 hours and can be done in a group in person, or online. Cost is $10 per student. It provides a solid and illuminating look into preventing child sexual abuse and is scalable to a large university community.

I recommend that universities require this kind of training and provide a list of approved trainings. Unfortunately, there are some really outdated and poorly-written training out there. Make sure you point people to valuable and accurate resources. [As the Center Director for Kidpower North Carolina, I strongly endorse Kidpower training, but the programs we offer may not be easily scalable to a university-wide level. I can however provide training to groups of adults.]

Setting up situations for success and safety: one of the basic principles to consider is minimizing one-on-one adult-child situations. There should be multiple adults present whenever possible and situations should be set up to insure this. That means adequate staffing must be provided for this kind of coverage.

Abusers need privacy and control to operate. Adults in authority already have “control.” So do camp counselors who may be youth themselves. So situations should be carefully set up to minimize “privacy.”

Pay extra attention to situations such as: children using the bathroom, children changing in locker rooms before or after swimming, overnight housing or overnight trips.

Make sure to prevent the potential for youth-youth abuse as well. This is a common yet often-overlooked problem.

The university need to figure out who in their structure is responsible for overseeing youth-serving policy, and program compliance to these issues. This may require extra staffing.

Youth-serving policies should be provided on the website and to parents whose children are participating in programs. This information should include who to talk to if parents have questions or youth experience problems. If done well, this provide a valuable outreach to the community.


In addition to this list, there are other program issues to consider, for both university officials, and also parents who are thinking about enrolling their child in a program on campus. Parents, ask questions! The attitude toward these questions, as well as the answers provided, will help guide your comfort level in enrolling your kids. Program leaders should welcome questions and address them respectfully, not be defensive about them.

What are the staff’s qualification for their area of expertise, and their qualification to supervise youth?

Is it clear who is in charge and what each staff person’s role is?

Do staff have appropriate safety training and equipment for their program? For example, first aid training for sports camps. What medical resources are available immediately, and nearby? If necessary, is there equipment like an automatic external defibrillator immediately accessible? Also for sports camps, is there adequate rest and hydration built into the schedule, especially in very hot weather?

What is the program’s schedule?

How much free time is there for kids? Is it supervised? Where does it take place? Are kids/teens allowed to roam freely on campus? Off campus? With what defined limits?

Where are students housed for residential programs? Who else is assigned to that residence? Who else has access to the residence? What is the level of security in the dorms?

What food service is provided and can it accommodate special diets or allergies?

What kind of transportation is used for campers? I strongly recommend AGAINST allowing children to be transported in 15-passenger vans. Many state laws outlaw these vans for public school use, due to safety concerns, but other programs may not be covered by these laws. See more information below in the resources section.

It is likely that there is a wide variety of programs offered on campus, with varying starting-levels of awareness to these issues. For example, at UNC, we have the Morehead Planetarium, which educated kids all year round. They host thousands of students on field trips throughout the school year, and run after-school programs as well as well-regarded summer camps. Hosting kids is an integral part of their mission. Contrast that to an opportunity like a high-school student landing a summer research internship in a biology lab. A biology professor may not even think about these issues, not because they are a bad person, but because they don’t think of their program that way. That’s where the university needs to step in, providing guidance and policy for everyone who is responsible for kids on campus.


Resource list:

My Doing Right by Our Kids co-author, Kidpower Executive Director Irene van der Zande teaches parents about Camp Safety in her new video, Kidpower Advice to Prevent Sexual Abuse At Summer Camp & Recreation Activities.

YMCA of the USA’s Child Abuse Prevention Code of Conduct. A good basic policy for any youth-serving organization to consider as a template.

Comprehensive CDC Guide that would be helpful to program leaders or interested parents: Preventing Child Sexual Abuse within Youth-serving Organizations: Getting Started on Policies and Procedures

Darkness 2 Light’s Stewards of Children Training is offered online or taught in group sessions by authorized facilitators across the nation.

Redwoods Group: The Redwoods Group insures YMCAs, JCCs, and summer camps across the country. This makes them a leading expert in child safety practices for youth-serving organizations. Through their insurance work, they have developed expertise in areas most people “don’t want to be an expert in,” such as drownings and child abuse, and it takes special people to work on tackling these problems. Redwoods Group is to be commended for their concerted effort to take what they learn from working with hundreds of organizations to develop best practices and share their knowledge back to the world. They provide a great deal of knowledge, training, and resources through their website.

Safe Sanctuaries program, by the United Methodist Church

Consumer Advisory: NHTSA Reminds Drivers of 15-Passenger Vans to Guard Against Rollover Crashes During the Warm-Weather Driving Season The government can make recommendations on how to drive these vans more safely, but my advice is to avoid them altogether. School buses, cars, or regular minivans are much safer. See the excellent CBS News report, “Rollover,” based on 60 Minutes reporting by Scott Pelley.

Parents, if you are feeling overwhelmed by all this due diligence, consider choosing an accredited camp, such as ACA accreditation. Programs such as YMCA camps have this kind of accreditation and well-established child safety policies. Parents still need to pay attention to child safety no matter what, but if you feel overwhelmed by choice, if you start by looking at accredited camps, they should have a stronger level of existing child safety policy in place.