Responding to Inappropriate Counselor-Camper Conduct (May-June, 2004)

Dear Bob, I received a call about an incident that took place at a resident camp this summer that I would like your thoughts about. It seems that two 21 year-old male international staff, off for the evening, returned to camp intoxicated. They went to a cabin, woke up the campers, and stripped one as he struggled to stop them. Once they had the camper out of his night clothes, one of the counselors held the boy down on the ground while the other counselor removed his own shorts and underwear and squatted over the boy’s face, touching the body of the camper with his bare end—a move that was later referred to as “tea bagging.” The campers complained. The camper who had been singled out was visibly and understandably upset. My concerns have to do with how the camp responded to the incident. The counselors were fired and the parents of the involved campers were all called. The parents of the boys who were not stripped and touched were upset, but satisfied that the counselors had been fired and that their sons seemed okay. Surprisingly, the parents of the boy who was singled out reacted minimally, evidently seeing the incident as a “camp prank.” They, too, were satisfied with the resolution. The camp returned to business as usual and a decision was made that the less said, the better. Bob, what are your thoughts about this “resolution?” Norman E. Friedman Director, AM Skier’s Safety Underwriter’s Department
Dear Norman,
Thank you for sharing what I am sure most camp professionals would agree is an egregious case of counselor abuse. My first and greatest concern is for the male camper who was victimized by these two staff. Regardless of the reported reaction of his parents, this young man was singled out, violated and humiliated in front of his peers. Having treated many child victims of abuse, I imagine this boy will have lasting, profound emotional difficulties unless he gets some professional help. The less than supportive response of his parents may even contribute to his upset, as he must be wondering why it was they did not acknowledge his pain and suffering and come to his aid. If he is typical of the many boys I have treated who have been victimized in similar ways, what he will wrestle with the rest of his life is why he, of all the boys in the group, was singled out for such treatment. Without help he will continue to agonize over his own imagined culpability, with possible devastating effects.
For the sake of the boy, therefore, as well as for the well-being of the other boys in the group who witnessed this scene and who were also “violated,” this situation needs a stronger response than the one you outline in your letter. Though it is understandable that the owners-directors involved would be tempted to “want the problem to go away,” one would hope their concern for the boy and their sense of professionalism would prevail. Indeed, were a lawsuit to be filed at a later date against the camp for neglect, the fact that the camp minimized the problem and did not take the proper steps to address the situation would be a major factor against them.
Here are the steps I would recommend:
1) Each boy in the group should be initially interviewed to gain a rudimentary grasp on the chain of events (this done while the counselors are isolated from other campers). I would actually have each boy write his own account out on paper and follow up with a face-to-face interview. Each boy should be interviewed separately, and there should always be another adult in the room while this takes place. Make sure the person speaking with the boys is comfortable with this role, and take steps to make sure the boys feel cared for.
2) The boys must also be spoken to as a group and an appeal made to “keep this private” while you follow up. Tell them that the boy who was targeted needs their help maintaining his privacy and dignity. You might have them involved in a group activity for a few hours in the morning away from the rest of the camp while your process continues. The boys must also be told that their parents will be called and that they are welcome to speak with their parents if they so desire.
3) I would summon the staff as a whole right before or after breakfast and tell them I need their help. I would tell them that an incident had occurred (without giving too many details), and ask their help in quelling rumors. I would ask the staff to help keep camp focused on camp and not on this incident.
4) The police need to be called, as does the agency responsible for bringing these counselors into the country and the child protective agency in the state the camp is located in. It is never the jurisdiction of the camp owner or director to decide whether counselors who have perpetrated abuse can be freed or not. The only people charged to make that judgment are the police or the child protective agency. To violate this principle is unethical and could lead to criminal charges against the camp (for not following the mandated reporter law) and open them to civil prosecution at a later date.
5) As for the boys, I would have a trained professional sit with them to debrief and assess the level of trauma they experienced. Any parent who wished to visit with their son by phone or personally would be allowed to do so, and I would offer this not only to the parents, but to the boys as well. (I would work with the parents to encourage the boys to stay at camp, since the best prognosis would be for them to finish their session and, with support, move on.)
6) I would insist the parents of the boy who was singled out for “special treatment” come to camp and speak with their boy. Once there I would recommend that a professional therapist be located to do an assessment of the boy as soon as possible. Whether the boy would go home or not would depend on his state of mind after visiting with his parents. It could be that he could finish out his session, then get the evaluation; or get the evaluation and return in a day or two to camp.
7) I would make sure to check in with trusted members of the staff to see what the level of rumor was and to decide whether a letter sent to all parents a bit later in the summer might be necessary. (Remember that the identity of the boy must be protected, for his sake and the sake of any other camper who might be hurt in the future.)
8) I would review the policy regarding curfew and checking staff in. Did the camp have a policy in place? If not, they need one! If so, it was not enforced properly (those counselors should never have made it back to the bunk!) I would want to know where the breakdown occurred.
9) If possible I would have the two counselors write an apology to the camper, to the group and to the entire staff. They would need to take full responsibility for their wrongful behavior. Whether or not they would comply (especially if it could later be used against them) is not clear, but it would be a great help, especially for the boy who was victimized.
This is the short list, but a good start. I would reiterate a piece of advice I have heard you give many camps over the years, Norman, which is to form a “crisis response team” composed of trusted senior administrators, perhaps a trusted colleague, a lawyer, a mental health professional and a public relations person, and I would be in touch with this team as I moved through the above process. These steps and the professionalism they represent are the kinds of practices that all camp professionals must learn as we all make our camps safer places for children.

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