Geocaching on School Grounds

Despite having guidelines in place for the placement of geocaches, it isn’t uncommon for some geocaches that are against guidelines to slip through the cracks.  Some might be questionably against guidelines to begin with.  Some might be okay and it’s up to intepretation.  Some just flat should never be placed.  Geocaches on school grounds is one of the latter ones.  And lately, I’ve seen a few that slipped through the cracks.

Before continuing, let’s look at the guidelines regarding caches on school property.

“Caches may be quickly archived if we see the following (which is not exhaustive):

  • …..
  • Caches near, on or under public structures deemed potential or possible targets for terrorist attacks. These may include but are not limited to highway bridges, dams, government buildings, elementary and secondary schools, and airports.

There may be some exceptions. If your cache fits within one of the above areas, please explain this in a note to the reviewer. If you are given permission to place a cache on private property, indicate this on the cache page for the benefit of both the reviewer and people seeking out the cache.”

Here’s what that means.  It means that you should avoid placing caches near, on or under important public structures (while the local Burger King may be important to you, it’s likely not the first place a terrorist is going to attack).  Structures that might be considered important in this way are those structures that, if attacked, will deal a blow to the community.  Bridges, dams, airports, and government buildings are clear examples.  Schools may not seem like a target for some, but attacking the place where the community children are at does deal a blow.

So how does this affect geocaching?  It affects it because of the increased security that will likely result from suspicious characters wandering around them.  The staff are often more observant to such behaviors.  But that’s where that last paragraph comes in.  If you obtain permission from a land owner, and inform your reviewer of this, they may allow the geocache because of the permission.

I’m here to try and convince you that even with permission, placing caches on school grounds is a BAD IDEA.  I can stand here and argue that because I’m not only a geocacher, I am a teacher.  I work in those very schools.  I am familiar with the policies common to many schools.  I can vouch for what may potentially occur if a staff member observes you geocaching on school grounds.

From a geocaching perspective, school grounds aren’t always clearly marked.  Depending on the school, you will have the school itself, the parking lot, and the “front lawn” of the school.  If the school has a playground, or some sports field, that may also be part of the school grounds.  But what about the nearby park behind the school?  Or maybe that park across the street from the school?

In either of these cases, consider this.  Is there additional parking away from the school for the park?  If so, try to find a spot in the park close to that parking location as opposed to a spot in the area of the park closest to the school.  The further from the school you are, the safer it is for the geocachers coming to find the cache.  Aim to be at least .1 to .15 miles from the school.  I have seen caches near schools where the best parking is not at the school, but at the parking lot on the opposite side of the park, over .1 miles away.

But if the best parking for the potential cache in that park is in the school parking lot, requiring a geocacher to pass through school grounds, then find another park.  Only once have I ever seen an exception to this.  A geocache was in a park that borders school grounds.  The park had a thick tree line and a creek between it and the school.  Due to the placement of the park, there was a small section of the corner of the school parking lot that was marked as being for the park.  Then, there was a path from that section of the lot leading to the park.  In this case, the parking for the school and the parking for the park were one in the same.

So why all the concern.  It’s just a geocache, right?  WRONG!  In the eyes of the school, you are one of two things until proven otherwise.

  1. A suspicious person wandering school grounds.
  2. A suspicious person wandering school grounds and placing a suspicious package on school grounds (if you are seen handling the geocache).

It used to be that people could walk by a school without raising suspicion.  When I was in school, we had two drills: a fire drill and a tornado drill.  Those drills still exist, but now there are also Green (everything’s safe), Yellow (lock classroom doors until told otherwise), and Red (lock doors, move away from windows and doors, turn off lights, stay quiet) Alerts, each one being used for a variety of situations, including suspicious people on school grounds.  A lot of this is a result of the rise in school attacks over the last 15-20 years, especially after the Columbine incident in the late 90’s.

But school attacks aren’t the only thing that have raised concerns.  In the last 15-20 years, news media have been a lot more observant about reporting suspicious characters hanging around schools, whether kidnappers, child predators, or sexual predators.  This is definitely NOT a bad thing.  It has raised awareness of the issue and resulted in many schools updating security policies in an effort to increase safety for children. Schools should be a safe place for students and these kinds of policies are needed in today’s day and age.

But for geocachers, this means that their actions are more carefully scrutinized.  Even if you think you can get to the cache without being observed, if a staff member doesn’t see you, chances are that a student will.  And if the student notices you, chances are quite good that they will point you out to a staff member.

Let’s say you were at my school (which you won’t be because many of my coworkers know I am a geocacher and I would likely be contacted if someone inquired about placing one at my school).  And, let’s imagine that the geocache was in a location that allowed myself to see you approach and search for it.  Even if I know why you are there, I am required to contact my administration and inform them of your activities.

Then, after they are informed, they would be required to investigate. Even if I have suspicions of why you are there, they are still required to investigate.  If suspicions warrant it, the district resource officer would be contacted.  That person is a police officer, so at this point the local police are involved.  And once the police are involved, you now have not only the school administration, but also the district administration involved.  Oh, and don’t forget that it only takes one phone call from a concerned parent, who likely received a text message from their kid using a phone that is supposed to be in their locker, and suddenly the news is involved. If a container is observed, the bomb squad will likely be called in. As many geocachers have read about, even if the bomb squad suspects the container is a geocache, unless they can clearly identify the contents without opening it, it will be destroyed. INSTANT PRESS COVERAGE! Now, we have bad press about geocaching all because you felt that the school had this perfect spot for a geocache. One more thing to consider.  Depending on the actions of the suspicious person, the school will likely be evacuated.  This is even more likely if the person is observed handling the cache container.

Now you might be tempted to ask “Why not just go after school?”  That would seem like a likely option and it is definitely a better time to go after it.  There is still one problem.  Many schools are used even after school lets out.  You have after school programs, sports, meetings, and then there is the janitorial staff.  For many schools, the janitors are often working into the evening, meaning that the school still has people around who could potentially observe you.

Okay, so what if you obtain permission first.  The school has approved it, so it should be okay, right?

WRONG AGAIN!  Just because the school has given permission does not mean that this permission is widely distributed amongst the staff.  For example: GEOCACHE PROMPTS BOULDER SCHOOL EVACUATION (do a search for “Geocaching +Colorado +evacuation” and you’ll likely find more articles). In April of 2009, two geocachers pulled up to a high school sign, got out of their vehicle and began searching for a geocache placed in the bushes. The cache was a larger container that had been placed by a school teacher at the school with permission from school administration. The geocache was part of a classroom project and had been in place for two years. On that fateful day, a staff member observed two suspicious people digging around the school sign, placing a container in the bushes. The staff member approached and asked what was going on, receiving one of the common “misdirects” that geocachers sometimes use. They then went inside and made some phone calls. Soon, the school was being evacuated under the direction of the local police. The bomb squad was called in and the news media showed up to report. All of this activity also meant that two backpacks, that had been abandoned by students within the school building in the rush to evacuate, were suddenly on the “suspicious” list as well.

Remember, this was an instance where the teacher had been given permission from the school. This should be proof that with regards to schools, permission doesn’t necessarily mean it is a good idea. I personally have plenty of room and lots of good hiding spots near my school. I refuse to use them because of the security issues it would create.

Lately, I have personally contacted several cache owners to request that they archive their listings because of placement near schools. One of the worst I’ve ever seen was placed in a tree that was within 20 feet of an elementary school classroom window. Their argument, when I contacted them, was that the school was being closed down permanently. It had been placed near the end of the school year so no big deal.  Well, one of the early finders happened to arrive right before recess.  After waiting in the parking lot to replace the cache for an hour, they were approached by some pretty unhappy school officials who had seen the person.  They did not sound amused by the situation, but the owner didn’t remove the cache after this was reported. I happened to come across the cache in the summer, after school was out. The school was still being used for educational purposes, including summer school and various organizations.  Parents were picking up their kids as I approached the area, so I passed it up.  It doesn’t matter if the school is closed or not, as long as anybody is using the school, it’s not a good location to place a cache.

The funny thing is that I’ve frequently observed other geocachers who don’t consider the consequences of these placements. Usually, this is because they are not aware of the problems it can create by allowing it to remain active.  Some have even claimed having permission.  One got permission because they were on the school board.  Guess what?  Of all the possible containers to use, they used an ammo can sitting behind the front sign of the school. I refuse to go after them, and I will contact the owners. I encourage everyone to do the same.

Any additional thoughts or questions? Post a comment and I’ll address them. Because I am a teacher and a geocacher, I like to think my perspective on this provides me a unique opportunity to educate others on the dangers of geocaches on school grounds.  I’m hoping this helps give you an idea of how the education world might view such a placement.


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4 Responses to Geocaching on School Grounds

  1. ErikaJean says:

    I just went looking for a cache right near a school (I DNF). It seems though, that it was placed by a class in the school – but again … as the hunter – How do I know that the teacher is still teaching there, the school administration that knew about the cache is the same and that the random worried parent driving by isn’t going to call 911 while I’m mid hunt?

    These kinds of caches always make me feel uneasy!

    Maybe the reviewers are overloaded – but it seems that a lot gets approved that shouldn’t. If a cache falls in one of these areas – why not have more than just the CO “getting permission”? I think they should have to provide a contact name and phone number – that way there is at least SOMETHING there in case something should happen.

  2. P.J. says:

    Good post. I avoid any cache like this. Just isn’t worth getting into trouble or having to deal with things. If it’s a Sunday afternoon or something, I think differently. But anytime during the week? No chance. I move along without a thought.

  3. tripcyclone says:

    P.J., that’s a good rule to follow. It’s unfortunate that not all geocacher’s think to avoid them during school hours.

    Erika, I’ve gotten the impression from other geocachers around the globe that each reviewer looks at the guidelines differently. For some, they are a strict set of rules. For others, they aren’t rules, they’re only guidelines, and it’s up to the reviewer to decide what is acceptable on a case by case basis. For some, it’s a mixture of both based on experience and interpretation. Then, there are some areas where only one reviewer may be covering an entire state. If that area has an explosion in the number of submitted caches, it’s understandable that one or two might slip through that wouldn’t normally get past the review process.

    Of course, unless the reviewer is aware there is a school there, how are they going to know to not approve it. Many schools aren’t listed on all maps. At this point, it’s up to the cache placer to show good judgement.

  4. Pingback: TripCyclone in the Media « Trip’s GeoAdventures

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