New minors policies affect Fifteen campers and BlastOff! staff gather under the Koffler building sculpture, which depicts the work of chemists and biologists, at the University of Arizona. ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF MELISSA HARNOIS
Many science outreach groups are discovering that their institutions have implemented policies regulating engagement with minors. The policies have been developed and enacted in no small part due to concerns originating from the infamous case of Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant coach at Pennsylvania State University who was convicted of molesting boys whom he was meant to be mentoring. BlastOff! organizers initially were surprised to learn of their university’s new minors policy, which stipulatedthat every adult working one-on-one with minors must undergo a verification process.
Though the details of these engagement policies may vary by institution, they likely will have a significant effect on outreach efforts. Each adultscientist who visits a K–12 classroom, judges a science fair, hosts a campus workshop with minors or participates in a science camp may soon need tocomply with these policies.
We offer our experience as an example of how an outreach group can manage and comply with minors policies. At the University of Arizona, our ASBMB Student Chapter runs a weeklong summer science camp called BlastOff! The university developed minor policies in the spring of 2015, and we hosted BlastOff! in June,unaware of the changes. In August, administrators informed us that the camp was in violation of the university’s policies and could not run againuntil we were in compliance.
After our initial “What policy?” response, we discovered that the main issue the policy was meant to address was one-on-one contact between a minor student and an adult who had not undergone an approved verification process. At our university, this verification includes a background check with fingerprinting as well as a two-hour online training video related to child abuse. BlastOff! sixth- and seventh-grade campers come from multiple schools in low-income areas of Tucson, Ariz.
Our chapter was concerned about the cost of verifying 30 camp volunteers at $95 each. The total cost would have been $2,850, which is almost twice the cost of running the camp. We communicated our financial concerns to university administrators, who responded that all volunteers must complete the training or wewould have to cancel the camp.
After speaking with leaders of our university’s Society of Women Engineers, which hosts a similar outreach activity, it became clear that thepolicies were evolving as the administration realized the deleterious effect the costs would have on university outreach activities. Fortunately, theuniversity appointed an administrator who was very familiar with undergraduate-sponsored outreach events and sympathetic to the financial burden ofthese policies.
Administrators recently informed our student chapter that only three camp leaders will need to undergo background checks and participate in the training video — drastically decreasing the cost. To be in compliance with the policies, only these undergraduates will be allowed to have one-on-one contact with minors. No other undergraduates can be alone with a minor.
We offer our story to illustrate how a student chapter successfully worked with an administration to develop a policy that protected students whilestill managing the financial burden on the project. This process was not easy for us, and we hope the following tips will help others avoid difficulty:
- Start early and be proactive. As soon as you start planning your outreach activity, determine if your university has an established policy forworking with minors.
- Be aware that many university policies govern both on- and off-campus activities. In addition, some K–12 schools may have their own policies, which may require background checks by local or state law-enforcement agencies.
- Determine the cost of compliance. Many grants will support the cost of background checks. If you are writing a new grant, be sure to includethis cost.
- Do not assume the administration is unwilling to work with you if compliance will be overly burdensome to your project.
- Protect your students. If there are no established minor policies, we advise developing your own. Adult volunteers who have not had background checks should not be alone with minors. This also applies to one-on-one communication over the phone or email. This type of policy protects both the minors and volunteers.
- We also recommend developing and communicating guidelines on appropriate conduct for undergraduate volunteers. Many have not worked with K–12 students before and may be unsure about appropriate behavior.
James T. Hazzard
is a senior lecturer at the University ofArizona and a member of the ASBMB Student Chapters Steering Committee.
is a senior at the Universityof Arizona and president of the school’s ASBMB Student Chapter.