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Sunburned Child at Flagler Camp Exposes a Florida Paradox: Paddling Is OK. Applying Sunscreen Is Not.

| August 10, 2015

sunburn sunscreen

5-year-old Alekzander Vatistas came home with a severe sunburn last week, prompting his mother to pull him from his Flagler County camp.

When Loree Vatistas signed her 5-year-old son Alekzander up for a week-long summer camp program run by the Flagler County Schools Adult Education Deptment, she knew there was a strong likelihood he’d be exposed to the sun. It’s August. It’s Florida.

As someone who works in an Ormond Beach dermatologist’s office, Vatistas is even more aware of the fact that most of the dangerous melanomas people face in their lifetimes comes from exposure to the sun before age 12.

So before sending Alekzander to camp for a scheduled trip to the beach under the typically-blazing sun on August 5, Vatistas applied sunscreen to her fair-skinned child and said she’d been promised by the site manager of his camp that Alekzander would be sprayed with sunscreen again at the beach, since the morning sunscreen application would be sweated off within a few hours.

“I went to pick him up that afternoon and couldn’t believe how badly he was burned,” Vatistas said. “I was very upset, and I saw another counselor there and he told me, ‘Oh, lots of kids got burned, it was really hot out there.’”

Alekzander’s burns came about from sun exposure and from no sunscreen, spray or otherwise, being applied to him for the rest of the day. Vatistas is understandably upset. She believes a promise was made by the site manager, and that the promise was broken, though the camp’s director said the manager never promised such a thing.

More broadly speaking, however, is an issue that plagues both children and adults at summer camps alike: for gear of litigation, local interpretation of a state code very strictly forbid adults touching children, in any manner.

Even to apply sunscreen to a burning child.

No law or regulation actually forbids school employees from touching students, though a code is interpreted as imposing the same restriction.

No state law, state Board of Education regulation or local school board policy actually states explicitly that school employees may not put sun-screen on a child, hug a child or even spank or paddle a child. In fact, Florida law does not ban corporal punishment, but provides for it explicitly, and some school boards around the state still apply it. They don’t even need parental permission (though some school districts ask for permission first anyway.). Flagler County is not among those districts.

Nevertheless, the district cites an odd administrative-code regulation as its own protection against having to apply sunscreen to students.

According to the “Principles of Professional Conduct for the Education Profession in Florida,”, no adult “shall unreasonably restrain a student from independent action in pursuit of learning.”

That line is interpreted very broadly. Flagler County Schools attorney Kristy Gavin said that code wording covers any contact with a child at all, whether it’s striking a student or just putting SPF 30 on his or her shoulders.

“Unfortunately, because society has become so litigious, this is what you have to do in this day and age,” Gavin said. “The situation we’re faced with as school employees is, we try to make sure that we keep the kids safe and keep the employees safe, and that includes safe from accusations made against them by children and parents.”

sunburn sunscreen florida students law

Alekzander’s ear.

“We’ve really reached a situation,” Gavin said, “where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
Deen Wall, the Community Education coordinator who oversees the summer camp program, said that Vatistas’ complaint was the first sunburn-related complaint he’d received from a parent this year involving the camp, which has had 600 registered children this summer.

He said that with a ratio of adults to campers of between 1:12 and 1:25, based on the age of the campers (younger children get more supervision), his counselors try hard to make sure students like Alekzander don’t get burned.

“We do tell every parent to pack spray sunscreen with their children, and our counselors are allowed to spray the child if he or she asks for it,” Wall said. “Our site managers are very proactive and do often pull kids out of the water if they notice something.

When asked if he thought exceptions to the strict state regulation about touching should exist when it came to sun-related issues, Wall said, “I don’t, because you’re opening up yourself to a whole can of worms there.

“We have staff meetings all the time and we make very clear that they are not allowed to touch the children at all,” Wall said. “We’ve had counselors over the years who have said they wish they could put sunscreen on, but they have to follow the rules.”

Gavin said that taking the child out of the sun, of course, would solve most problems, but that parents also need to be aware of how restrictive the rules are.

She said interpreting the rules strictly, there could be a situation where a school employee sees a student falling off a tree or a piece of playground equipment, goes to try to catch the student, the student falls and breaks their arm, and the employee is then subjected to a lawsuit.

“When you talk about putting sunscreen on a child, that child could come home and tell their parents that their private parts were touched,” Gavin said. “You just can’t take the chance.”

None of that matters to Loree Vatistas and Alekzander, who is slowly recovering from his burns. She’s angry that her son may be permanently damaged from his day at the beach, and that a 5-year-old’s answer to “do you have sunscreen on?” be taken as the final word by a camp counselor.

“The statistics are clear about malignant melanomas and childhood exposure,” Vatistas said. “What happened could have been very easily avoided.”

13 Responses for “Sunburned Child at Flagler Camp Exposes a Florida Paradox: Paddling Is OK. Applying Sunscreen Is Not.”

  1. Barb says:

    STUPID excuse on the school’s part and I would be FURIOUS if my child were allowed to burn like that. Simple solution. Apply it with cotton balls and there is no skin on skin contact and the child is protected. To just let a child burn is totally irresponsible.

  2. Jenn K says:

    [Selected as the Comment of the Day in the Daily Briefing.–FL]

    I experienced the exact same problem with my child at the Flagler County Schools Summer Camp when they took my son to the beach. He is also very fair skinned and I slathered him from head to toe and made him wear a protective sunscreen shirt to prevent him from burning. I also packed his sunscreen for him to re-apply himself as I was told that the counselors could not apply it. The counselors could have easily taken five minutes to gather all of the kids at the beach and have each child re-apply sunscreen throughout the day, but not only did they not do this, they allowed my son to take his swim shirt off. When I picked him up from camp that afternoon, he had such a severe sunburn on his ears, face, neck, shoulders and back that by that evening, they had become huge yellow blisters. My son could not sleep because he was in so much pain. He had 3rd degree burns on his shoulders and ears, and after it healed about a week later, he had permanent scarring on his shoulders from the burns. The day after it happened I went to the director and was told the same thing, that they aren’t responsible for it and a lot of kids got burned. In my opinion, if I am entrusting you with my child’s well being and PAYING YOU to take care of him, then it is indeed your responsibility to ensure my child is not permanently scarred by your negligence. I too pulled my son and daughter from the program due to this problem. They should not be taking kids out in this scorching Florida summer sun without being able to ensure that they are well protected from sunburn.

  3. Obama 2015 says:

    This is a no win situation.

    Even if you had the spray cans of the top of the line sunscreen that burns the sun back, had the workers 5 feet away and a camera with 360 angles you still will have a parent that will be upset you sprayed their kid.

    I don’t believe taking 30+ kids to a beach is a good idea anyway with so many risks with the ocean, rocks and random people.

  4. Shame on counslers says:

    If you can’t apply sunscreen then you need to make sure no kids are can an adult responsible for the well being of children let this happen. You are in Florida and there is a dangerous sun out. No one should be going outside each day without sunscreen that’s just common knowledge. Shame Shame Shame, if you can’t apply sunscreen don’t take them to the beach. Seems so simple but instead our children are endangered and effected for life. Real freaking nice.. OUTRAGED!


    But, pulling children out of the water would involve touching, would it not?

    So by their own admission they don’t strictly follow the rule they are invoking as their defense.

    Simple solution: Permission slips.

  6. Howard Duley says:

    Cover the children’s eyes with a mask people us to let them sleep better and then spray the child with a spray sun screen. You don’t have to touch them at all. Just make sure the spray doesn’t enter their eyes.

  7. maryann says:

    Unfortunate – but more unfortunate is that in this litigious society we live in – the same people complaining about the burns would be the ones to complain about the sunscreen application. I know there are many solutions, i.e.- cottonballs, spray sunscreen, permission slips – but there’s always that loop hole that unfortunately someone would find so they could put blame on someone else. Personally I never agreed with the “no application from campers” rule – I could glop the sunscreen on my fair skinned red head child and by 10 – it’s efficacy worn off. Even if the camps gave the children the sunscreen to apply to themselves it would be better. Effective rules must be established instead of trying to err on the side of caution. Unfortunately the effects of that are worse.

  8. David B says:

    A child that age has no business being taken to the beach without being escorted by it’s parents or guardian. The beach is not safe. Beside exposure to the sun, their is the risk of rip tide, jelly fish, and an encounter with sharks. A 5 year child should be left back at the daycare.

  9. NeighborDan says:

    This is just wrong.
    1. No child should be permitted to burn like that.
    2. My son went to the PC Parks and Rec camp, they told us that they will not apply creme sun block but will if it’s a spray. We packed him spray… not only did they spray him, but used our sun block to spray other kids (we went through 4 cans in 5 days). I don’t mind, I’d rather they use our sun block to protect kids who’s parents didn’t care enough to pack some for them.

    Point is these counselors CAN and SHOULD use spray sun block on campers.
    The fact that this was not done in this child’s case is gross negligence.

  10. Citizen says:

    Sunscreen should never be shared without parental consent due to possible severe life threatening allergies.

  11. Misty says:

    so i guess if your child were choking, the heimlich maneuver would not be permitted…or mouth to mouth resuscitation, since that would be physical contact. Or to pull them out of the way of danger, ie: a car or such. Do you know how rediculous this sounds! If you are allowed to do these things what is the difference of applying sunscreen!?? This is a medical reason to apply it to a child. This world is getting so far gone it is pathetic. My children are all grown and i am so glad i do not have to deal with this nonsense. Hey the teacher who saved children in a tornando by laying ontop of them…i guess she should be reprimanded for touching the children with her body!!! We can not say one safety measure is greater or less than the other!!

  12. Joe says:

    My grandchild loves it at this summer camp, she is always anxious to go and on some days wants to stay if we try to pick her up early. Being that she is my grandchild, we rub the sun screen on ( #45) ourselves in the morning and never had a problem on beach days. These people run a really good program and are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, I hope they have camp for her next year !

  13. Robert Fathman says:

    [Selected as Comment of the Day in the Daily Briefing.–FL]

    Ok, pretty much unanimous agreement here that the school either needs to apply the sunscreen, be sure the kids are capable and apply it to themselves, or don’t take them to the beach. The other issue raised by this article is hitting kids with boards, which schools sanitize by calling it something innocuous-sounding like “paddling.” For God’s sake, what is wrong with the Florida legislature? Ban this outmoded brutality. Teachers in 31 states, in most Florida counties, in all Catholic schools in the U.S., and in every developed country in the world educate kids without hitting them. Florida teachers are equally capable, and it is time to abandon the old practice of beating children in schools. “Corporal punishment,” another euphemism, has been condemned by the American Medical and Pediatric Associations, the American Bar Association, the NEA., the American Asssoc. of Elementary School Principals, and many other groups. There is no national association of any kinds that supports its continued use. Please, call or e-mail your state legislator and ask him or her to sponsor a bill to end this hamful practice.

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