Getting Students out into the Community Carries Risks as well as Benefits

Let’s see a show of hands by those who work at institutions that have developed a comprehensive risk management plan related to service learning and civic engagement. Keep your hand up if you can quickly locate a copy of that plan. And keep your hand up still if you’ve attended a formal training session regarding the risk management plan. Anyone?

“One of the issues with service learning and civic engagement is they are such great programs and everyone is excited about doing something good for the community and doing something good for the students — and of course that’s true — but sometimes we sort of lull ourselves into this feeling that ‘If I’m doing good, how can I possibly get into trouble? Who would sue us?’” said Rob Jenkins, an associate professor at Georgia Perimeter College. “That kind of thinking can be problematic because there are a number of areas in civic engagement and service learning where you can open yourself up to liability.”

Consider the following scenarios outlined in the recent online seminar Managing Legal Risks of Service Learning and Civic Engagement:

  • A student is robbed and assaulted in the parking lot of the agency where she had been assigned by the institution for an internship. Is the institution liable?
  • Malpractice claims arise involving accounting and law students who volunteer at tax and legal aid clinics. Is the institution liable?
  • While at her internship, a student with epilepsy has a seizure. Is the institution liable?

These scenarios, based on actual situations, underscore the importance of understanding potential risks that can occur when institutions send their students out into the community. Rather than thinking “What are the chances …” you should be thinking “What if …” What if there’s a car accident on the way to the site? What if a student inadvertently damages the community partner’s property? What if the community partner serves vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly, people with disabilities, or victims of domestic violence? What special precautions and training should be in place then?

Although it’s impossible to eliminate risk entirely, assessing risk and having controls and procedures in place to mitigate risk is critical. This includes thorough training for students and faculty, regular site visits, adequate supervision, and frequent communication with your community partners.

“You have to keep in mind, these students are not professionals so you need to be clear in your expectations,” said Deborah Gonzalez, an attorney with experience running a civic engagement program. “Prepare the students in terms of how to dress and how to behave. That they should only park in lighted areas; that they should avoid one-on-one situations where they’re isolated from everybody else. And also go over just a few things of what to do if something goes wrong, such as making sure they have the name and number of an emergency contact.”