Changing Practices to Meet a Growing Concern (September-October, 2004)

The verbal and physical abuse and intimidation of campers by other campers has been receiving increasing attention from both parents and camp professionals alike. In a 1999 survey of several insurance companies that count camps among their clients, I found that up to 24% of “crisis calls” to the hotlines of those companies involved incidents of camper-to-camper abuse, at the time second only to calls about inappropriate intimate behavior between counselors and campers. More recently concerns about teasing and bullying spawned a front page article in the New York Times (“Hot Topic at Summer Camps: Ending the Rule of the Bullies,” June 28, 2004). To read the letters to the editor printed the following week (“Letters,” The New York Times, July 5, 2004), it is clear that the mistreatment of campers by other campers is old news. Many former campers, now adults, wrote how the abusive climate they experienced as campers absolutely ruined any potentially positive impact of their camp experience. It seems that bullying behavior has always been present at camp—it is the concern about it that is growing.
The apprehension of parents has been easy to track and has increased perceptively since September 11th. Combined with violence in schools a la Columbine, the Catholic Priest child abuse scandal (which is viewed by most people as a crisis in trust and not just a “Catholic” problem), hair-raising stories about initiations and hazing events among high school sports teams, the worry over terrorism has sparked a more generalized anxiety among parents about the safety of their children and the credibility of those charged with their care and well-being. The movie Mean Girls, released in the spring of this year, has been widely viewed by parents and offers clear examples of just the kinds of situations they don’t want their children to have to face.
Training staff to look for signs of mistreatment of campers by other campers and to intercede in firm, yet respectful ways (bullies need guidance, too!) is clearly important in addressing the problem, and from the anecdotal evidence presented in the June 28 Times article, more and more camps are including some sessions on bullying and teasing in their orientation. This is a laudable trend, which I hope continues. However, staff training alone is not enough to corral the problem of bullying. Like the challenge of inappropriate behavior of campers by staff, their must be improved supervision of campers in order to effectively reduce the incidence of cruel behavior of campers by other campers.
Most people experienced in the care and supervision of children know that teasing and bullying can be extremely subtle and persistent. Mean looks when adults are momentarily distracted, a whispered threat, a clandestine note or being quietly ostracized and shunned by peers are all refined forms of systematic abuse. I recall visiting an 8-week coed resident camp in Pennsylvania just a few years ago where several girls had been terrorized by the rest of the group right under the noses of their counselors. The problem came out in the open when, during parent visiting day, the girls spilled their tearful stories to their parents. In addition to the subtle nature bullying can have, many counselors become either tired or so acclimated to the teasing children often engage in that they cannot judge what is “normal give-and take” and what may constitute abusive behavior.
Regular Staff Check-ins
To me this all points to the need for better supervision of campers, starting with better check-ins with bunk staff. As it stands now at most camps, sometime during orientation a member of the administration tells staff that “we are here for you,” exhorting staff to seek out help when confronting challenging camper behavior. While this is a good practice and should be continued, it largely doesn’t work. Most staff are too worried about how they will be perceived or what the administration might think were they to seek out such help. In addition, many staff assume they should know how to deal with the challenges of campers and often won’t allow themselves to admit when they are in over their heads. They often worry that a Unit Director or Head Counselor will step in and take the problem out of their hands, essentially undermining their authority or credibility with campers. To overcome these roadblocks, formalized check-ins with staff should be instituted as a regular part of the program at camp. I myself engaged in this practice when I was involved with America’s Camp, the one week session held at Camp Mah-Kee-Nac in August for the children of the people who perished in the attacks on 9-11. Sitting with the staff of individual bunks 30-minutes each day brought to light numerous behaviors that the administration might otherwise have never known about. Many of these challenges were being well handled by the superb hand-picked staff at America’s camp. But the experience convinced me that regular check-ins can only end up being a helpful part of a “check-and-balance” system of supervision at camp.
I suggest setting up a list of “check-in questions” to be given to all staff near the end of orientation with an explanation of how the check-in works along with the schedule of meetings. (For most camps, once or twice a week would be practical and effective). This way your bunk staff can prepare and will know what it is you are looking for. The following is an example of such a list:
“Tell me about any camper who…
• Is having a persistent problem with homesickness
• Seems to be separating him/herself from the rest of the group
• Doesn’t seem to have or be making friends
• Is dominating or manipulating the group
• Doesn’t seem to be eating
• Has a problem with personal hygiene
• Has had a bed-wetting accident
• Has had a nightmare or sleep disturbance
• Has been in a fight
• Has been having temper outbursts
• Has shared something upsetting with you or other campers
• Is overly preoccupied with sexual matters
• Has been asking overly personal or sexual questions of you or other counselors
• Has displayed some kind of inappropriate sexual behavior (name calling, story telling, graphic language, simulating sex)
• Has been sick or gotten hurt
• Has bruises, a rash or other sign of a physical problem
• Has refused to go to activities
• Has been found with contraband in the cabin, bunk or tent (incl. medication)
• Has been threatening to run away

The above list can easily be modified for day camps.
Checking with Staff about Staff
In addition I have added some questions about fellow staff that provide an additional check, as follows:
“Tell me about any adult…
• Whose behavior with campers is making you uncomfortable, such as •being threatening or punitive with campers •using inappropriate language or gestures with campers •touching campers in a way that doesn’t seem right •doing or saying something inappropriate in front of campers
• Whose behavior with another counselor is making you uncomfortable •being threatening or harassing someone, including in a sexual way •using inappropriate language or gestures •touching someone in a way that doesn’t seem right
• Who you feel is stressed or who you think could use some support or relief
• Who you feel is not taking care of him or herself
• Who may be keeping medications or other contraband in the bunk

The Evening Watch
Resident camps have long had a practice of allowing staff to leave for the evening, keeping a smaller crew behind to keep watch over multiple cabins, tents or bunks. Given that much intimidation and abuse occurs after “lights out,” when adult supervision is at its lowest level, this practice is simply not in keeping with the goal of providing an emotionally and physically safe environment for children. How many times have I seen parents become uneasy when they learn that an adult is not always physically in the bunk at night with campers. If camp professionals are serious about maintaining the safest surroundings for campers humanly possible, then number of adults present with campers at night must be reviewed. Though not a popular move, it is one of the weakest areas of supervision in resident camps today.
Meeting the Challenge
Most camps have activities that involve risk, like horseback riding, archery, high ropes course elements, climbing towers and the like. Even having a waterfront is a risk. Yet, through careful training and the application of particular protocols, camps have consistently been able to run these activities at a high level while reassuring parents and keeping campers safe. It is time to apply this same expertise to the realm of supervision, since it may turn out that the riskiest activity is simply having campers in the company of other campers. Camps can meet that challenge!

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