Penn State part of effort to create standards for youth programs at universities

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As universities and colleges host a growing number of summer and year-round programs for children and young adults, experts at Penn State and other universities have been working together to develop best practices for camps on campuses.

Penn State experts are joining with child safety coordinators from other institutions to take a leadership role in developing best practices at institutions that, while created to serve adults, offer programs to children too. The range of programs may include summer sports camps, academic camps, 4-H camps and events, children’s day camps, and art-focused children’s workshops. The potential growth of these types of activities on campuses has raised awareness of the need for universal standards for the protection of minors.

Sandra Weaver, Penn State’s youth programs compliance specialist, was one of the founders of the Youth Protection Network for Higher Education (YPNHE), a network of people working in the field. Since starting in August 2013, the group has continued to grow, recently reaching 250 members, and its leaders are forming a recognized national nonprofit organization to better meet the needs of people in these positions. In addition, Weaver has been instrumental in the American Camp Association (ACA) efforts to create a new membership section, Camps on Campus, which was officially kicked off at the ACA’s February 2017 meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As part of that, representatives from Penn State and other Universities — including Clemson University, the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Texas A & M and the University of Utah — are providing input as ACA reviews and updates accreditation standards for all youth programs including those that would apply to campus-hosted programs as well as traditional summer camps.

Weaver said when most people think of institutions of higher education, children do not come to mind. But, in some cases, universities may actually serve more children than they do adults. Camp programs offered by universities across the nation offer youth opportunities for learning, leadership, skill development and healthy living that are not available elsewhere. At Penn State alone, there are more than 2,500 programs, activities and services offered throughout the year, including 4-H programs across the state.

“With the growing awareness of the number of children involved in university youth programs, there has been a shift in the understanding of populations served on college campuses,” Weaver said, noting that Penn State serves more than 200,000 children in the course of a year.

“Creating an environment that promotes the safety and well-being of these children is a top priority,” Weaver said. “Having Penn State at the table of a national movement relating to youth protection efforts in higher education has been of great value to our institution.”

Penn State’s youth compliance program, established in July of 2013, is part of an initiative to create a national model for working with minors on campus. The program’s design and implementation follow the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s recognized standards for building effective compliance programs. These include creating standards and procedures; providing effective oversight with direct reporting authority; developing training, education and lines of communication; establishing disciplinary guidelines, response and corrective action plans; and conducting internal monitoring and periodic risk assessments. This model has been shared at national conferences such as the Society of Corporate Ethics & Compliance, the University Risk Management & Insurance Association, The American Camp Association and at the Conference on Youth Programs in Higher Education at Texas A&M University. 

Rather than relying on individual programs to ensure best practices are being followed, universal standards will offer institutions a way to uphold a safe environment for children being served. Steps taken at Penn State and other institutions include using inventory systems to identify and track programs; streamlined policies and procedures across programs; background check and clearance requirements; and monitoring for compliance.

In addition to on-site visits, Weaver said monitoring for compliance at Penn State includes sending all program leaders a pre-program self-assessment survey, including questions such as: Is your program registered? Do you have emergency notification contacts in place? Has your staff completed its required training? The survey results provide information for camp and program leaders to assess their preparedness for the upcoming season and also provide insight into the overall picture of youth programs at Penn State.

Weaver, along with Ellen Will, program director at Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center; Omar Andujar, minor protection coordinator at the University of Connecticut; and Dawn Riddle, protection of minors director at Vanderbilt University, recently shared their perspectives in the ACA’s Camping Magazine. The article discusses youth programs on college campuses; the challenges and opportunities associated with them; and the value of ongoing efforts to modernize and streamline program tracking , training, and compliance.

“Just like traditional summer camps, institutions of higher education are committed to providing fun, safe, high-quality experiences for youth in a campus setting that encourages a sense of community in which all participants are treated with dignity and respect,” the piece notes.

Unlike many traditional camp sites that are contained within a single organization or on private property, most college campuses are public spaces and therefore present the challenges that come with open environments. For example, students, faculty, staff and visitors can enter the campus from a number of access points, which presents challenges for youth program arrival procedures. Likewise, youth programs sometimes take place in the same areas as programs serving adults, creating the need for specific supervision protocol. 

“Camps on campus take advantage of university expertise to provide youth with positive experiences that increase knowledge and skills, and develop connections to specific disciplines — whether they are educational, recreational or athletic,” Weaver and the other experts state in the magazine article. “The end result is lasting changes that positively impact the youth participants, while also instilling a lifelong desire for learning — which is exactly what traditional summer camps strive to do!”

Sandra Weaver, Penn State’s youth programs compliance specialist. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated April 24, 2017