Making a “minor” shift: five distinct differences between kids and coeds that colleges and universities should keep in mind for summer programs

May 25, 2017

Higher Education Alert

Author(s): Tina Sciocchetti

As college students head home for the summer, many colleges and universities are preparing to welcome high school and middle school students on campus for summer programs and camps. Students attending these programs may be using the same campus facilities as their older counterparts, but there are key developmental and legal differences in the way college and university personnel should approach these students. Here are five key distinctions between these age groups that should be considered when hosting adolescents on campus:

  1. Program staff accustomed to dealing with young adults must adjust their interactions in recognition of the developmental differences present in children. Developmentally, minors and adolescents (ages 12 to 18) are less independent than college-aged students. Many have never lived away from home before and are not used to unstructured environments. For younger students, this might be their first encounter with differences in race, class, gender, religion or other core issues of identity. They are still developing awareness and acceptance of their own identity and that of others. University personnel should be cognizant of these significant developmental differences in the ways they plan for, communicate, and interact with younger students.
  2. Administrators and staff must remember that unlike college students, mandatory reporting laws come into play when interacting with individuals under 18. Every state has specific laws around child abuse, statutory rape, consent and mandatory reporting. School officials—which generally include teachers, counselors, coaches and administrators—are mandated by law to make reports about suspected physical or sexual abuse against a minor. Typically, a low threshold—"a reason to suspect" abuse—triggers a report. Staff are individually responsible under the law, a liability that cannot simply be shifted to the institution. It is essential that institutions train staff about mandatory reporting requirements and the school's protocols for making reports to authorities.
  3. For the younger age group, it is important to cover policies and expectations in the areas of bullying (including cyber bullying), harassment, discrimination, alcohol and drug use, visitor and overnight guests, sexual intimacy, consent and sexual assault. Students should be able to identify at least two trusted adults on campus for seeking help and reporting policy violations. Unlike their college counterparts, institutions cannot assume younger students understand governing policies and the concepts in them. Program personnel should explain policies in basic simple language and make sure that minors actually understand, not just say they do. To ensure understanding, staff should ask adolescents to explain the policies as the students understand them and work to make sure the understanding is complete.
  4. Handling policy violations and other well-being issues also differs with younger students. Adolescents are minors in the eye of the law and, thus, their parents or guardians should be informed about any significant interactions with a child, including possible policy violations, discipline, contact with authorities and the like. Parents must also be included in well-being issues as soon as possible. Staff stand in loco parentis for minors, but ultimately are not their parents. Unlike college students, confidences cannot be taken and maintained. Minors also cannot consent to the "waivers" institutions typically obtain to support an assumption of risk for participating in many summer program activities. Parental consent is required. Program staff should thoroughly document policy violations and well-being concerns in writing, and it is a good idea to have another adult present (counselor/parent) when discussing these issues with a minor. Prior parental notification of a discussion with a minor and/or parental participation is an option, but is not legally required.
  5. Finally, summer program staff should be well trained on maintaining appropriate physical and emotional boundaries with minors. There are serious legal implications for inappropriate interactions with minors, particularly any romantic behavior. Adults have greater power than students and have a responsibility to manage this power differential by setting and enforcing appropriate boundaries. These boundaries should extend to both personal and online interactions. Program staff should avoid risky behavior including inappropriate self-disclosure, physical contact that can be misinterpreted and making students excessively dependent. Careful consideration should be given to staff social media interactions with minors, and a strict policy against it is advised.

Colleges and universities should keep these important legal and developmental differences in mind as they gear-up for summer. Thinking of these issues ahead of time will help set a foundation for successful summer programs.

The foregoing has been prepared for the general information of clients and friends of the firm. It is not meant to provide legal advice with respect to any specific matter and should not be acted upon without professional counsel. If you have any questions or require any further information regarding these or other related matters, please contact your regular Nixon Peabody LLP representative. This material may be considered advertising under certain rules of professional conduct.

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