In the Trenches: Communication Breakdowns

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

DEAR BOB,
We had a problem this summer with one of our older cabins. A group of thirteen-year-old boys was horsing around while changing after swimming when a small group of them harassed one of the boys who, it turns out, was new to the group. They took his bathing suit off and then began to tease him about his body. What exactly happened is not clear, as there was not a counselor in the cabin at the time.

The boy's parents were understandably upset when he told them about it in a letter home (we do not allow phone calls). The boy never said anything about it to us, so we first learned about the incident when his parents called us quite upset. Their contention is that the boys should never have been left unattended. They said that one of the reasons they chose our camp was because of a claim in our brochure about twenty-four-hour supervision.

Bob, how do we solve the problem of privacy with older boys and girls while maintaining a high level of supervision? We don't believe older boys, who should be showing signs of increased maturity, should have counselors hovering over them twenty-four hours a day. Are we wrong to assume that older children would be uncomfortable and find it offensive to have counselors watching them while they change or shower? Thanks in advance for your comments.

- Changing Times

DEAR CHANGING,

The problem you describe has been an issue at many camps, some of which have actually become involved in litigation over the matter of alleged substandard supervision. The standard that I have been using is that counselors do not need to be within eyesight of their campers all the time. This is especially true for older campers, who, as you point out, would feel extremely uncomfortable if counselors watched them as they changed or showered. However, counselors do need to be within earshot of their campers at all times. Had the counselor of the boys you mention been on the porch of their cabin, he would have heard the ruckus and been able to step in to prevent the boys from going too far.

I have one thought about your comment that these older boys "should be showing signs of increased maturity." While it would be nice to think that this were so, many people have made egregious errors based on what they thought "should" be true. Adolescent boys regress easily. Put them into a situation where they have to take their clothes off (changing times, showering), and the anxiety they may feel about their bodies, their development, and how they "measure up" to other boys is enough to cause a calamity. If anything, I think every counselor should assume that some boys may need more supervision during these vulnerable times, not less. Again, the way to achieve that is to have counselors within earshot of the boys, whether in the next room or just outside the changing area or showering area, so that there is privacy and coverage.

DEAR BOB,
We have a problem that we have never experienced before. We recently got a call from a parent with a complaint that one of our male counselors has been I-Ming (editor's note: I-M is shorthand for Instant Messaging) their daughter with remarks that are sexually suggestive. This parent claimed that there were other girls who had received similar messages from this counselor, who is a popular, energetic young man who has been with us for two or three years. Indeed, when we checked, there were other parents who knew about the situation, but it was also clear that they had all spoken to one another before we got to them. We did speak to some of the girls directly (with their parents listening in), and while I do not doubt their story, it was clear that some of them had been "coached" by their parents. It is difficult to know what to do about this, since I am not sure whether the parents were insinuating that we had a pedophile on our hands or not. Also, each of the girls had erased the messages immediately, so we had no firm proof in the form of a record of these messages. What the counselor typically would say in these messages was what he would do with the girl if they were ever to be able to meet alone sometime. Again, we couldn't come up with hard evidence about what the counselor had written, and though I was a bit uncomfortable with the "group mentality" that had developed among the parents and their daughters, I was also clear in my own mind that this counselor could not be asked back to camp. But is he a pedophile? Bob, what's my next move? As we said, the counselor in question is very popular, although there have been some concerns that he is, at times, too friendly with campers. We also once had to tell him not to give campers back rubs and not to sit female campers on his lap. The lap incident occurred on a bus which he claimed, rightly so, was crowded, so this was his attempt to make room.

- Uncertain in Cyber Space

DEAR CYBER SPACE SUFFERER,

You are not the first camp person who has told me about problems related to the Internet. Indeed, this is an area that may need more attention. Though it can be a wonderful way for staff to keep in touch with you and one another, it has been relatively unexplored in terms of potential problems. Because it is a medium that teens, staff, and parents are using more and more, especially with reference to camp, it is not surprising that some people may choose to use it unwisely.

Let's tackle the question of whether this counselor is a pedophile. The answer is that we do not know whether this young man is or has the potential to become a pedophile, but he certainly is a menace, and that is the word I would use with him and with the parents and their daughters. As to proof, there have been indications from what you have said that this young man may have some boundary issues, especially with the lap-sitting and the back rubs, but if you are not accusing him of a crime, what you need is to be "comfortable" or "uncomfortable" having him in your camp - period! And though I understand your concern about the parents coaching their daughters, it is not surprising, and in some ways admirable, that the various parents have come together to protect their daughters. Could this all be a made up prank by one of the girls? This has certainly happened before. However, to have this counselor back, who admittedly has shown you some other "red flags," would not only alienate those parents, they would waste no time spreading the word to other families. So, again, he may not be a pedophile, but you simply cannot invite him back to camp based on your comfort level alone.

The feeling you want parents to have after you speak with them is that you are responsive to their concerns about safety and that you put a lot of effort into maintaining that "safe envelope" at camp into which they entrust their daughters (and sons).

By the way, about the lap-sitting incident. My experience is that it is exactly this kind of plausible situation - the bus being too crowded - that people with poor boundaries take full advantage of. The girl sitting on his lap (and you did not indicate how old she was) could have just as easily sat on an older girl's lap, or some other younger female camper could have sat on the lap of a trusted female counselor, thus not involving him in the situation in any way.

DEAR BOB,
It has come to our attention this fall that we had a problem in our boys' middle camp that we were unaware of. Evidently there was a widespread "game" which the boys supposedly called "humping" - where boys who were eleven, twelve, and thirteen - would simulate intercourse using a pillow and, perhaps in one or two cases, each other. When other boys were involved it was always with clothes on, though in the cabin, the game when "played" with a pillow might occur with just underwear or a bathing suit.

When I checked this out with our supervisors, they claimed they had vaguely heard about it but never witnessed it or heard a complaint about it from a camper or counselor. When we checked with counselors, they confirmed that this had, indeed, been a regular practice by many boys and that they had felt powerless to do anything about it. Bob, you can imagine my frustration. During orientation and the rest of the summer we always tell our staff to come to us if they are feeling challenged with any camper behavior. What can we do short of resigning ourselves to the fact that there will always be things we don't know about going on in our camp? That thought frightens me.

- Missed It in Michigan

DEAR MISSED (OR IS IT "MIFFED?"),

I can well understand your frustration. . . and . . . I have a suggestion. Don't wait for your staff to come to you. Go to them on a regular basis, sit down with them in small groups with counselors who are working with campers in the same age range, and check in. Will there always be counselors who do not come to you or their supervisors? Yes, for many staff doing so often feels like admitting a weakness or vulnerability they do not want to admit. I find that when I check in with small groups throughout the summer, I find out volumes that I would never know about had I not asked. Not only do you create a face-saving way for staff to receive support, they support one another as a result of being "in the trenches," debriefing together with an interested supervisor. Knowing what we know about staff, which is that they wish to appear competent and do not want to risk ridicule, for us to continue a practice that patently doesn't work - asking them to come to us - is simply not smart. In some cases, it could also lead to negative consequences for campers and camp.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for Bunk1.com and can be reached via e-mail at InTheTrenches@bunk1.com or by fax at 617-572-3373. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by American Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2003 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.

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