Safety and security planning has long been a hot topic in the meetings and convention industry, but it can become far more complicated when planning youth events. External threats such as natural disasters, active shooters and terrorist attacks are the same at all events, but there’s an entire new world of potential problems with young meeting participants. They need extra protection and security not just from predators and unscrupulous adults, but often from themselves and their sometimes risky behavior. Event planners and youth group leaders say the key to ensuring a smooth, safe meeting is to have a formal yet flexible plan that has the support of chaperones and meets the needs of the group.
Rev. Steve Easterday-McPadden of Long Peak United Methodist Church in Longmont, Colo., says youth typically need more safety and security precautions because of their vulnerability and lack of independence. For every large event it holds, UMC starts by electing a safety officer who has the designated responsibility of holding briefings with appropriate officials, leaders and chaperones and sets basic guidelines for how to respond to certain issues. Church leaders also hold meetings to address the potential for behavioral problems. The safety officer distributes that information down the chain and has all leaders, including volunteers and chaperones, sign behavioral convenants and other documents.
“They’re generally responsible for ensuring the safety and security at these events, enacting and enforcing the policies, and leading those who work directly with the youth,” he says.
Easterday-McPadden serves as the chair of the Rocky Mountain Conference’s Ethical Education Task Force. Part of that role is to develop curriculum and offer workshops dealing with ministerial best practices regarding the safety of children, youth and vulnerable adults. Although it was originally designed to address sexual ethics, the organization’s Safe Sanctuary Policy serves as a backbone plan for ensuring safety and security at meetings, and covers everything from chaperone background checks to safe driving policies.
“It serves as an overall model for ensuring the safety and security of children by covering a number of issues and topics,” says Easterday-McPadden. It also mandates the responsibilities of the conference event coordinator. Among other things, that includes ensuring groups have appropriate insurance and that all occupancy limitations are adhered to.
The document, “A Model for a Local Church Policy on Safe Sanctuary,” also lays out requirements and safety precautions for selecting chaperones and adults who will come in contact with children. For those volunteers, this includes recommended documentation, background check requirements and how to spot red flags. It also gives a framework for how to deal with those red flags or persons of concern. The Safe Sanctuary policy also recommends that those working with children be trained for evacuation in case of a fire, first aid, CPR, awareness of blood-born pathogens, and procedures for handling allergic reactions and dispensing medications.
There is also a section that covers transportation safety and sets standards for insurance, vehicle safety and driving records. The Participant Behavior Convenant must be signed by all participants and chaperones, and mandates a moral code that includes the use of language, behavior and attitudes that are consistent with the Christian faith. Then there is the Final Safe Sanctuary Checklist, which covers all requirements and is to be used with all conference outings involving children and youth.
In general, youth typically require much more documentation than adults when it comes to conference registration. Emily Kintzel, Long Peak United Methodist Church youth director, says it’s important to have all pertinent parental contact information and any necessary relevant medical information for all children attending a conference. Rigorous background checks, questionnaires and checklists are used to vet volunteers who must also obtain clearance from the National Register of Sex Offenders. There is also documentation on which chaperones are working with which children.
“We always make sure that all the adults helping have background checks so that we can ensure they are safe to be around the kids,” says Kintzel.
Depending on the venue or destination, there also may be legally required security minimums or plans for dealing with evacuations and natural disasters. Maureen Gross, director of meetings for the National Catholic Youth Conference, says she usually partners with local authorities on how to respond in the event of a disaster or emergency. Those potential hazards, which range from earthquakes and tornadoes to hurricanes and floods, can all depend on the particular meeting destination. In almost all cases of emergencies, chaperones would be called upon to maintain order and direction among the children for whom they are responsible.
“We usually rely on local authorities because they are the ones who are on the ground and know what options are available,” says Gross. “Our plan requires that we meet with facility staff and walk through scenarios.”
More often than not, the biggest threat to safety and security at a youth meeting can come internally from the youth. While the consequences might not be as serious as those from a vehicle accident or natural disaster, for example, there’s a much greater chance of injury from horseplay or juvenile behavior. A child falling down stairs, cutting his foot at the pool, twisting an ankle while running or having a medical emergency is a real and common safety concern.
At Promise Keepers, Jim Copeland, vice president of field ministries, says dealing with teenagers can add an entire new level of security concerns. Copeland previously worked with Dare 2 Share Ministries, where he oversaw the production of large concert events. He says the overwhelming majority of teenagers who attend such events are well-intentioned, but a few will push the limits of horseplay. Once that gets out of hand, it easily can lead to injury or bodily harm. Copeland says the best tactic has proven to be a “show of force” where the overwhelming presence of parents, chaperones and security prevent many problems before they happen.
“It’s mainly just about horseplay—the stupid things that could get them hurt. At a concert, that might be getting too close to rails, starting mosh pits, trying to sneak backstage,” says Copeland.
In all of the events he’s worked with during past years, Copeland has relied heavily on volunteers, many of whom are law enforcement, firefighters and emergency services personnel. In some instances, depending on whether it is mandated by the venue or destination, armed security services may be contracted for events. Most larger venues have their own security plans and forces that handle major threats to safety, but Copeland says aside from correcting juvenile behavior, there isn’t much of a need for serious internal policing.
“In 200-plus events I’ve done around the world, it’s rare that you have many problems,” he says. “It’s a Christian environment and you just don’t get many crazy kids at these things.”
While Copeland says that Christian environments tend to be milder and have fewer problems, he still makes security and oversight a top priority. That includes having the right chaperones and security at the right place as a preventative measure.
“They’re still kids, and in this day and age if you give them an opportunity to do something stupid, some of them will,” says Copeland.
At the annual National Catholic Youth Conference, about 10,000 youth attend a dance together at one time. Gross says one of the biggest concerns in the past has been rowdy dance moves that lead to injuries. In the past few years, the organization has pre-empted the problem by implementing a more rigid code of conduct in a booklet that is distributed to all attendees. The DJ also helps keep kids in line with public announcements if he or she spots any dangerous behavior.
“We used to have some sprained ankles, but we’ve rarely had any [recently] because we’ve done a better job to ensure that they don’t do these moves,” says Gross.
Lindsay Widicker is a meeting planner for Adventist Meetings, an organization that provides event planning for the North American Division of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. The church holds a number of events for youth ages 12 to 17, including a recent youth congress in Knoxville, Tenn., for more than 1,800 people.
Widicker says one of the biggest ways to help prevent children from getting in trouble at conferences and events is to keep them very busy. A long schedule of seminars, meetings and events means kids have less idle time to get in trouble and are more likely to be tired at night. Widicker says it’s not uncommon to have attendees on the go from 6 a.m. to midnight during some events.
“We really don’t give them any time to do anything inappropriate,” she says. “We have security and chaperones [who] make sure they’re where they’re supposed to be during the day. It works well for us.”
Keeping kids safe from themselves also starts with venue selection, says Widicker. Groups typically try to avoid or change the layout of those that have large lounging areas. Other temptations include venues near shopping malls or attractions that will lure some kids off venue premises. When an event is held near such distractions, Widicker says chaperones are made aware of them and are strategically placed where they can keep a better eye on locations where youth might wander away.
“With teenagers, some will find a way to sneak off and leave the facility entirely. It’s a safety concern because if something were to happen to them, no one would know where they were,” says Widicker.
Because many of the unique behavioral challenges with juveniles are rarely illegal, security requires a lot of leadership, flexibility and guidance. Running down hallways, jumping on beds, yelling in quiet places and wrestling aren’t things that most event planners or professional security personnel are used to dealing with.
Moral policing is another job youth group leaders have to address. While it may not represent a direct physical safety or security threat, swearing or inappropriate behavior between sexes needs to be handled properly. Because most large conferences include children from numerous groups who are overseen by a number of chaperones, problems usually are brought directly to the group or leader supervising that child.
“You have to be flexible in how you address these things,” says Copeland. “You typically redirect and say it’s not appropriate behavior for this kind of event. If it’s a significant thing, you take them to who they came with. If it’s a very big problem, you might turn it over to the police.”
While hired security may help protect against large external threats to the group, chaperones and parents are often the first line of defense when it comes to immediate safety and security concerns. They have direct oversight of the youth, usually know them personally and may even share accommodations with them. They are expected to be the eyes and ears supervising the youth.
Copeland says at most events, chaperones typically will be family or friends with extensive involvement in the church or organization. Because they usually have an open dialogue and history with the group, they often can police more effectively by keeping a closer eye on those who tend to push the rules. Copeland says he tries to find chaperones who know the group best and strategically place them in rooms near those youth that are known to have the most potential for problems.
“The parents who work with these kids usually get to know them and who has the potential to cause trouble,” Copeland says. “Those are the rooms you’re going to watch and listen to a little longer.”
Most youth leaders say it is important to have the right mix of adults responsible for the right number of kids. Widicker says they typically prefer to have no more than four youth per chaperone and at least one security person for every 30 attendees. In most cases, the number of security personnel will be meshed with the number of security at the venue or hotel.
Kintzel says at the beginning of each conference, an orientation for chaperones and accompanying adults ensures that they’re directing the kids and overseeing safety according to the plan. “We go over what the expectations are, where the kids can and cannot go, and whatever safety precautions or considerations there may be with the adults,” she says.
Gross says parents and chaperones will only be as effective as the policies put in place and the direction that is given. Safety and security plans, including how to respond in the event of an emergency, should be shared with chaperones. Gross says the NCYC often prints some of that information in the program book for both volunteers and attendees.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of plan you have in place, if you don’t have the buy-in and support from the chaperones and group, then it is not going to work,” she says.
Many say religious groups might have fewer problems than secular youth groups because there is strong moral culture involved. She says that in such Christian environments, there is more of a peer pressure to abide by the rules, which can eliminate many problems or eliminate bad behavior as soon as it starts.
“Kids often police one another quite well in terms of what is expected,” says Gross. “We usually don’t have many problems and I think the group will often discourage bad behavior.”