An After-school Provider Laments the Crazy Rules

Hi Folks! Here’s yet another look at some insanely overprotective, unproductive rules governing anything having to do with kids. This rant/lament comes from Rick Rood, director of an on-site after-school child care program in the San Francisco Bay Area.  He has worked in the profession since 1990, and provides workshops and coaching for education professionals who work with school-age children.  He blogs at AfterschoolAnswers and is currently finishing his new book, “The Three Secret Pillars of Behavior Guidance,” even while he and his wife are raising kids aged 5, 16, and 17. This note came in response to a post about a YMCA that wouldn’t let a mom bring her 3-year-old in to use the bathroom because this was against the rules. – L

Dear Free-Range Kids:  I run an after-school program, and if that parent had come to our center, I would’ve had to tell them the same exact thing.  Our organization (we’re a string of 16 centers run by a rec and park organization) has a policy that outsiders are not allowed to use our restrooms. Why not?

One simple reason — liability.  The (very) sad fact is that the policy comes from our insurance company. I do my best to be a “Free-Range” director.  I don’t make these policies, and there are many rules and regulations with which I personally don’t agree. But it goes deeper than that.  Because of this “bubble-wrap” mentality, out-of-school-time staff have become more and more infected over the years with this insidious “worst-case scenario” type of thinking.

Some examples? Recently one of my teachers reported me to my boss for a Free-Range comment I had made.  One day, one of our children decided to sneak away from school and not come to the afterschool program.  This resourceful 8-year-old made it pretty much clear across our medium-sized town, heading to a friend’s house.  We followed our policies when he didn’t show up to our program: parents and police were called, and they tracked him down in pretty short order. After the dust had settled, I made a comment to one of our teachers (who I mistakenly figured held similar Free-Range ideas), saying that, while it was good that we found the boy, I was impressed with the boy’s resourcefulness and that maybe, as a culture, we shouldn’t call up visions of child molesters and abductors every time something doesn’t go as planned. The teacher went to my boss, and told her that he didn’t think I was very serious about protecting the children in our care.

Another policy: Kids can’t walk home on their own.  Again, liability.  How much could we be sued for if a kid breaks their leg or goes missing on the short walk home (we’re a neighborhood school),  even if the parent has given permission?  Frustrating to me because the odds that nothing bad will happen within a two-block walk are pretty astronomical, and then add to that the VERY tiny chance that their parent will pursue legal action (these are parents that we, as a rule, work together with as partners- and we have very good relationships with our parents).

Here’s a corker. Our local Little League uses the fields on our school grounds for practice and games.  Can we release the kids to just walk across the field (again on the SAME physical grounds) to practice?  Heck no… we require a “responsible adult” to come and sign them out and walk them the 100 yards to practice).  And, even better, by policy that “responsible adult” cannot be one of our staff members (even if the parents say it’s okay and we walk them every step of the way).

Finally, here’s a spot where I’ve rebelled (although quietly). At one of our “sister centers” (on the grounds of another local school)… they had a kindergartner who fell off the monkey bars while playing in the afterschool program and broke her arm.  Immediately, and with almost scary domino-like action, many of the other local centers (including the one in question) banned kindergarteners from the play structures (even though they’re labeled for use by kids 5-12 years of age).  No one ever made it an official policy, so my kindergarteners continue to enjoy play time on the play structure.

My main philosophy in afterschool care is that we exist to facilitate the emotional and social growth of children.  And if we’re going to succumb to the bubble-wrap philosophy of raising kids, then our mission is doomed from the start! At my center, kids will be allowed to play freely on the play structure, kids will be allowed to wrestle in the grass, and I will make free range choices in every area where they have not already been banned and by the regulating agencies, lawyers and insurance adjusters.  And unlike some of my fellow co-workers, I will not succumb to the “worst-first” type of thinking that stunts the social and emotional growth of the next generation. – Rick Rood

27 Responses

  1. “It is my job to get children out from here with a feeling of taking responsibility for other people and themselves. To give them skills in how to be with other people and their friends… not to be nervous when they meet other people.” A direct quote from a Swedish out-of-school worker I interviewed in my book No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society. We can learn a lot from the Scandinavians.

  2. My 12-year-old daughter is a member of a children’s choir which meets on the campus of one of the safest university campuses in the country. Our home is perhaps 75 to 100 yards from where campus begins, and from there she must walk across a very long parking lot and then cross the street to get to choir. It’ s about four-tenths of a mile. They are very concerned that I don’t want to pick her up at 6 or 6:30 p.m. after practice. Apparently they feel walking across a parking lot is unsafe after singing, but not before.

  3. Rood asks, perhaps rhetorically: “How much could we be sued for if a kid breaks their leg or goes missing on the short walk home (we’re a neighborhood school), even if the parent has given permission?”

    Can we take this as a serious question for a moment. I don’t know the answer, does anyone? Are fears of law suits legitimate or are they another media-driven scare?

    There is an industry designed to hype “frivolous” lawsuits to drive tort reform. It’s hugely beneficial to large corporations who can reduce their liability in the event of consumer class-action lawsuits. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to imagine that this irrational fear has infected administrators. So are there any law suits which have successfully sued in the event that a child goes walk-about or slips on a wet bathroom tile?

  4. “San Francisco.” Absolutely no surprise there. Californians vote for their “progressive” politicians and then wonder why their kid’s lives are being micromanaged by insurance companies and lawyers. We have the same problem in NYC, there are no reasonable, common sense possessing politicians (left or right) to vote for…

  5. Just to add – based on the reaction to the hurt child mentioned at the end, it sounds an awful lot like admins are not reacting to genuine threats but to imagined ones. If it was a genuine threat, the insurance company would contact the schools and quote them higher rates but it doesn’t sound like this has happened. Frankly I doubt if anyone has called their insurers to inquire what the actual risks are. I know insurance companies have a rep for avoiding risk but this is wrong – they’re in the business of assuming risk, and they compete by placing a small premium on top of accurate risk assessments.

    They can fail too, of course, but if no one checks then they aren’t being given the opportunity to succeed.

  6. There is another viscous cycle at work here too. Regulations become burdensome which means only larger corporations or groups can open after school or day care centers. In turn, because they are larger they are at more risk from litigation. Instead of just 1 person running a daycare as an LLC they are a large corporation with assets. The result? Even greater worrying and preventing.

  7. “Liability” is blamed, and the insurance companies. In fact, your correspondent says it is in their policy. But I wonder, has he really verified that? Or is this just something he has been told.

    Because insurance companies really do keep careful statistics, and I really doubt they would put such a clause in there. And I also know people make that sort of thing up, to justify their fears.

    I go barefoot almost all the time, and after I demolish the “health code” excuse (no, there is no health code requiring shoes inside a public building), managers then fall back on “our insurance requires it.” Whenever I have managed to get a copy of their insurance policy, that turns out to be false. (Also, I have friends who work in the insurance insurance who also verifies that a rule requiring shoes is not in policies.)

    So again, insurance companies know the statistics. They don’t include silly reasons in their policies.

  8. You know, I totally get it when an insurance company charges extra for things that are real risks: homeowner’s in a flood or earthquake zone; life insurance for motorcycle drivers; heck, even car insurance for younger drivers.

    There are statistics, right? Statistics and actuarial tables and risks and it’s all pretty straightforward math, right?

    Where is this stuff coming from, this added “cost” of insuring institutions against damages when kids are walking places? Is there such a huge and accepted bunch of stats on all the payouts, the harm that’s come, the judgements against daycares… or is this just “I dreamed it up, so these are the premiums”?

    I’m confused.

  9. Real difficulties can be overcome. It’s the imaginary ones that are unconquerable.” -Theodore Vail

  10. Wow… just wow. I don’t know how one could even begin to undo a system that mired in fear. But here are two thoughts:

    If the states cover liability/ liability insurance for all schools, perhaps this would reduce the fear that a single relatively mild or incredibly rare incident would bankrupt a neighborhood school.

    Another thought is individual health insurance. I attended a college that issued each student a health insurance card upon arrival. The insurance was “cheep,” it only had a few thousand dollar annual limit. This school embraced various “dangers,” from easy 24/7 student access to school sporting equipment and boats, to labs that got us up close with open heavy machinery (also 24/7 unsupervised access), and industrial internships. Risk was very much a part of the program and culture. I can only imagine the school went to the insurance company with a non-negotiable requirement that the risk stay.

    Students got hurt, but serious injury was rare. I had one of the noteworthy cases. And when it happened the school’s insurance coordinator got involved. She didn’t get involved to worry, nor to limit student activities, but rather to insist I accept the ER doctor’s recommendation and get a good plastic surgeon to fix my face. The school’s “cheep” insurance paid for all but a $25 co-pay. I think that ability to just immediately take care of the students, without fear, is the sort of thing that lowers anxiety about allowing a little reasonable, beneficial, and heck even just fun “risks.”

  11. That is an excellent point, Bob. It has always been my experience that people will say whatever they like, just make things up, to get you to agree with what they have already decided. I could give examples, but my sister has the keyboard and the iPad provided one annoys.

  12. While the parents may not pursue legal action after their kid breaks his leg on the way home, there is a real possibility the parents’ insurance company might. A lot of cases are not instances of the actual “victim” suing but of the “victim’s” insurance company suing so the insurance company doesn’t have to foot the bill.

    I think it is a stupid rule to have to have but I think the center’s insurance company is more concerned about facing a “victim’s” insurance company in court rather than a “victim’s” parent.

  13. My kids’ after-school arrangement is to sit in the school cafeteria with an old, apparently humorless lady. The most free-range aspect of it is that she lets / helps them spend their milk money on unhealthy snacks. Ugh.

    That said, there are nice things about it. Though all the activities are sedentary, they do have a good variety to choose from (chess, gameboys, homework, and various other stuff), and they have lots of older kids to learn from (for better or worse, LOL).

    I do have to buzz in and sign out for this service. No big deal.

    I wish they would let the kids play in the gym at least.

  14. I meant to say in the above that the kids do have free choice to waste their time in any sedentary way they like, which is free range albeit physically unhealthy.

  15. Oh, and the purpose of signing out is so they can bill me properly, not for security.

    I gotta say at $1,50/hour, I can’t complain too much, can I?

  16. Justin is right. The daughter of a friend of mine found this out when she fell down the steps at their church, or something like that. My friend didn’t sue the church, but her insurance company did.

  17. Maybe it’s time to start going after the insurance companies. Could these schools be choosing more free-range-friendly policies than they are now? And how can we penalize insurance companies for being overly sue-happy?

  18. I wonder if this is a symptom of private health care. Does this sue-happy insanity exist in other countries?

  19. Adrian, I don’t believe this sue-happy mentality exists much in other countries, but it has nothing to do with private health care. Americans simply seem unable to cope with the harsh reality that s— just happens sometimes and that life is unfair. Americans always need someone to blame for everything, big and small.

  20. ” And how can we penalize insurance companies for being overly sue-happy?”

    They aren’t suing for damages just for reimbursement for their costs.
    For example, If I am injured at your home, my insurance company will pay the bills initially and then find out if you have homeowners or renters insurance and then sue them to get reimbursement from your insurance as your insurance would be first in line to pay.

  21. “Can we take this as a serious question for a moment. I don’t know the answer, does anyone? Are fears of law suits legitimate or are they another media-driven scare?”

    Fears of FRIVOLOUS lawsuits and high judgments are media-driven scare tactics. Fear of being sued for every little thing is a media-driven scare tactic. Neither are that common. Very few people view every accident as a money-making scheme.

    As for this particular example, who knows. On one hand, a school is not responsible for your health and safety on the way to and fro school unless you are on a school bus. There is absolutely no way that you could sustain a lawsuit against a school if your child is injured in a car wreck on the way to school. Everyone would think it ridiculous to even try. A walk to school should be no different.

    On the other hand, people could view it as the school is making the children walk. Most kids who walk are in walking zones where buses are not available (I realize that buses are probably less safe than walking, but most people ignore that).

    The thing about court cases is that you never really know the outcome until it happens. My guess is that this particular lawsuit would be dismissed at summary judgment. A school simply has no legal responsibility for what happens off it’s grounds. Even if buses are not provided, there are many options and the school is not responsible for which one the parents pick. I see this more likely to result in charges against the parents than a judgment against the school.

    However, if the case makes it past summary judgment, everything is in the hands of 12 people who come to the table with their own preconceived notions of how things should be done and any variance from that is going to go against you. If they all believe that walking is unsafe, schools need to protect children from parents who have no sense and children should never be released from school to walk alone, the school loses. If you get 12 rational people, the school wins. Rational people outnumber crazy people but any 12 random people could skew you either way. Most likely, if the case makes it past summary judgment, the insurance company will pay something in settlement to make it go away because insurance companies are very risk adverse.

  22. Wow, this guy’s head might asplode if he saw what my kids get for their recess time. Gravel driveway, sidewalk, lawns that are all sloping (falling danger o the horrors), prickly stickly berry patch, greenhouse where they might have a massive brain fart and stuff their faces full of tomato leaves and DIE, sledding slope that was not planned or engineered or safety guidelined by anybody (although the road crew usually plows up a big berm across the bottom for the kids to use as a backstop), plus in the summer the sledding slope is just the neighboring vacant lot full of gravel and rubble from the last time the city replaced the sidewalk and weeds that might jump up and force my children to eat them and DIE and bugs and child molesters and Nazis.

    If my kids don’t have bruises and scabs all over their knees and elbows it’s because they’ve been sick.

  23. @Adrian Here in New Zealand we don’t have this sue happy mentality, but we have Accident compensation corporation (ACC), your injury costs are covered (its a no fault system) unless you try and sue, where upon its no longer covered and you have to reimburse them ALL the costs, even the ones that would normally be free in our health system. ACC is funded through a levy on vehicle registration, sports club fees and employees and employers, with levies adjusted for industry risk.

  24. I found a brand new elementary school in my area has a freaking 6 minute YouTube instructional video on how to manage after school pickup! Brand new school built in the middle of a new residential neighborhood in a thriving safe suburb. Every kid attending the school lives within 2 miles and therefore is not bussed. I don’t get it. We’re moving backwards as a society.
    http://www.friscoisd.org/ly/schools/elementary/nichols/index.htm

  25. My 5 year old ran smack into a tree on the first day of school while playing whatever they played. I would never think about suing the school, but I am probably too rational.

    On the insurance in other countries – when I grew up in Germany (and I think still today), kids on their way to school and while in school are insured by the country/state. Problem solved. When I broke my arm in school, my parents never saw anything of the bill.

  26. I think Adrian hit the nail on the head.

    Are our fear warranted?

    Has there been a successful lawsuit that has occurred by allowing someone to use your toilet? How is it safer to make them piss their pants instead?

    We need to start asking these questions seriously. This is because we are losing a major part of our freedom. They hype of the compensation culture has us afraid of our own shadow!

  27. Oops! I posted the above in the wrong thread. It’s supposed to go in the Wii for Recess thread.

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