Protect Minors in Remote Learning Programs
Host: Hello and welcome to Prevention and Protection, the United Educators Risk Management podcast. Today, Lindsay Bond, Executive Director of the Higher Education Protection Network, and Melanie Bennett, Senior Risk Management Counsel at United Educators, will discuss how colleges and universities can protect minors participating in remote learning programs. Before we begin, a quick reminder that you can find other episodes of the Prevention and Protection podcast, as well as risk management resources on our website, www.ue.org. This and all podcast episodes are also available on iTunes. Now, here’s Melanie.
Melanie Bennett: Thank you. I’m Melanie Bennett. Lindsay, thank you for joining me today to talk about how colleges and universities can protect minors in general and specifically from sexual misconduct.
Lindsay Bond: You’re welcome. I’m so happy to be here with you today, Melanie. Thanks for asking me to join you.
Bennett: So before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about the Higher Education Protection Network, also known as HEPNet, and your role there?
Bond: Yes. So HEPNet has been around for almost four years in an official capacity, and before that we were unofficial as a Google group for many years. And we are a group of the people in higher education and those supporting higher education that want to prevent the sexual abuse and other types of abuse against minors entrusted to our care. A lot of times people don’t think of higher education as a youth-serving organization, but most institutions are actually serving more youth and minors than they are their own college-aged students, which is very shocking to boards of directors and college leadership and even those working in youth protection as well. So as an organization, we serve as a coordinated voice to promote good practices for protecting those vulnerable populations, and we provide programming and services appropriate to those needs.
Bennett: It is incredibly surprising to hear that there are more minors than college-aged students on campuses. In what capacities might college communities include minors?
Bond: Well, there’s the obvious, where people think of camp, but you would be remiss if you stop at just camp. So there’s a lot of internships that are happening. We hear a lot about the neighbor’s kid. Your neighbor has a lab and you’re at a great university and your kid needs experience for college applications and so forth, and so they want to go get experience in those labs and other entities and places on campus. So there’s internships, there’s mentoring programs, there’s instructional programs, swim lessons, and sports lessons, and athletics is huge, not only with their camps and programs, but with recruiting. If you think about collegiate sport recruiting, those are always minors that they’re talking to. And they’re really all over campus — from your academic units to your student life units and athletics.
At Ohio State, we have over 700,000 minors participating in programs annually and 60,000 students, so quite a bit more minors than students, but we are a land-grant institution, which changes things too. Another huge area in which minors are participating in college campus programming is 4-H, and I say college campus programming, but a lot of those programs aren’t actually occurring on the campuses of these institutions, but they’re entrusted to the institution’s care. So when thinking about where we’re interacting with minors, it’s 4-H, it’s places even abroad that we’re still technically in charge of the care custody control of these minors, but not actually on our campuses.
Bennett: So let’s talk a little bit about what’s happening with minors on campus during this crazy, crazy year. In March of 2020, institutions suddenly went remote for the remainder of the year. Before that point, were remote programs for minors common?
Bond: Not on a widespread basis. We would see at our various institutions some tutoring that might have happened remotely here and there, but not nearly at the level that we’re seeing now.
Bennett: And now that it is happening, does the online learning create new threats to minors that didn’t exist in the in-person learning environment?
Bond: Absolutely. So we are learning a lot about what those threats are. Some of them are, we’ve seen kids sharing Zoom codes. So as a minor, I get a note with an invitation to a program and I share my Zoom code with a friend who is not in the program. So now that’s the equivalent of having an unknown student showing up for your class or your program, which obviously poses concerns. There can be inappropriate or disruptive behaviors online. We hear a lot about keyboard warriors as grownups, but that happens for kids too, and cyberbullying, which is a big concern. Connections aren’t secure, so that would be the equivalent of a stranger lurking in the hallway. I don’t have a secure connection at home and someone can penetrate my internet, then now you’ve got access to all of these kids that is unknown, and you can’t control the environment, either.
So if you have a program or a camp at your facility, then you can kind of control the environment and control who is coming in and out. But in these virtual programs, anything can happen in the background, and I’m sure we’ve all heard a lot of the stories about nudity, violence, drugs, any of those things occurring while a child is in front of the camera in these programs and then everyone is exposed. There’s not a live delay like there is on live TV, there’s data mining and phishing, viruses, malware, data breach, cyberstalking, online grooming, image replication. So when you’ve got a whole bunch of kids on camera, who is seeing those images and what are they doing with those images and what can they do with those images? So there’s definitely many risks involved with a virtual programming that don’t exist in the real world, but it doesn’t mean that they’re unmanageable. You just have to think differently and creatively about it.
Bennett: With this new learning environment and all of these new threats, has educator training changed?
Bond: It has. So it’s changed in the way that it’s delivered as well as the content. So those of us in youth protection and higher education before, we’re thinking about the four different types of abuse and how to prevent it, and now we’re being called on to provide guidance and high-quality online learning and mitigating those risks. So those additions to trainings have changed. Those that weren’t doing online training to begin with to their individuals working with youths had a bit of a pause before they could build a foundation to do that online training. Those that have that foundation in place already were able to be a little more nimble. And then background checks — I think that posed a bigger challenge than training itself. The logistics of in-house fingerprinting and courthouses, police stations, and other places where you get fingerprinted being closed, that was a challenge. So the logistics of how we did things changed as well as the content and making sure that those working with youth were best equipped in order to deal with these new challenges.
Bennett: In another important area when I’m thinking about protecting minors on campus, is the initial tracking of minors on campus, figuring out where they are, how they’re involved with the institution. Did the pandemic complicate efforts for colleges to track minors?
Bond: I think the pandemic created challenges for everything, including the registration systems and tracking of minors for sure. Those of us that had a high-quality registration system in place, I don’t think felt the impact as much because people were still signing up for programs and maybe even made it easier in some ways because if they had a one-stop shop platform like Zoom for their institution to use, then all of that programming ran through there, and so they could pull reports. But for those that didn’t have a registration system or each program is using different platforms for the virtual programming, that was definitely challenging and just compiling all of that information. But the kids were still coming. Some institutions shut down everything last year, but some didn’t. For instance, the University of Texas in Austin still saw over 7,000 kids virtually last summer, and they were able to get those experiences in a different manner.
It impacted site visits for some people as we go out as youth protection professionals and make sure that policies are being enforced and that compliance efforts are successful. But a lot of our members access to these platforms that programs were taking place on, and they were able to pop in and created self-assessments for programmers to see where they were at and complying with policy. The policies didn’t go away. They just shifted a little, and I think most people still did a really good job at making sure that they were being followed. So that was good that people were able to make that effort to refocus.
Bennett: This has been a year like no other. That really tested a lot of the systems we’ve put in place. What lessons did HEPNet members learn from this year?
Bond: As cliché as it sounds, I think that we learned that we’re all in it together, and the biggest thing that we hear from our members is the openness of everyone in sharing their resources and being open and making sure that everyone is embraced in the youth protection model and not just those at a particular institution. Our discussion board was Grand Central Station this summer. It was active. At times I had to turn off my notifications because there’s so many emails coming through. But I think the reason that we were able to be so nimble in youth protection and higher education was because that we could lean on each other and borrow resources. And HEPNet’s always been virtual, and we have members worldwide, so we were already well equipped to continue to support one another. And I really think that we got through because we had each other. So we hear that it takes a village to raise a kid, and it takes a village to help protect them too. So we were fortunate to have each other to get through all of it.
Bennett: Thank you so much, Lindsay. I want to thank you again for joining us today. That’s all the time we have for today’s podcast.
Host: From United Educators Insurance, this is the Prevention and Protection podcast. For additional United Educators resources, please visit our website, www.ue.org.