In the Trenches: Bullies at Camp

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

Last fall we received a phone call from a parent of one of our
twelve-year-old female campers that was very disturbing to us. We aren't
sure how to proceed.

The mother of "Lauren" claims that her daughter was systematically terrorized
by many of the girls in her cabin. She claims Lauren was teased, ridiculed,
shunned, and threatened by the other girls, all of whom were evidently
spurred on by one girl in particular whom I will call "Lacey." This all
came out when the mother went to reregister Lauren for next summer. She
initially said she simply didn't want to come back to camp. Later, however,
Lauren began to tell her mother these details. She claims Lauren is afraid
to talk to us about what went on and that if Lacey comes back to camp,
Lauren will not.

We checked with the counselors in that group, and they were unaware
of any of this. While not our best counselors, they were reasonably responsible
and involved with their campers. Any ideas about where to go from here?

- Wondering in the Woods

Dear Wondering,

The situation you describe fits a pattern that reveals some of the differences
in the ways girls threaten or intimidate one another from the ways boys
do. Girls tend to be more secretive and organized about their attacks.
They often use the threat of isolation and the promise of popularity
to press other girls into the service of their bullying. Girls punish
other girls through relationship - banishing some, demanding loyalty
from others, and so on. Boys, on the other hand, shame other boys, questioning
their masculinity and humiliating them through physical acts of intimidation.

It is entirely possible that Lacey could have been careful enough to
organize and instigate the alleged campaign against Lauren entirely below
the radar of her counselors. The sheer use of power is often the motive.
I know of a coed camp in Pennsylvania where, on parents' visiting day
four weeks into the summer, surprising revelations about systematic threats
and harassment, much like you describe in your letter, were made to parents
by their daughters, all of which had gone on right under the noses of
counselors. What the girls did was wait until no adults were around to
intimidate others.

Your dilemma is two-fold: 1) what to do about the current situation
with Lauren and Lacey; and 2) what to do to guard against a recurrence
of such a condition. The bad news is there are no simple answers; circumstances
such as these are difficult to sort out.

I would encourage Lauren's mother to support Lauren in talking with
you about the matter directly. First, if she has any chance of re-enrolling,
she will need to get this out in the open with you. Second, if she is
to recover and be less fearful, she needs to become an active participant
in her own recovery. If she is like most girls, Lauren will worry about
what Lacey will do if she finds out that she is "ratting" on her. She
knows Lacey will deny any allegations and then really let her have it
next time she has the chance. You may have to give her some assurance
that, at least for now, you will not reveal that it was she that brought
this to your attention.

A brave and time-consuming move would be to contact the parents of some
of the other girls and, without using Lauren or Lacey's names, explain
that it has come to your attention that there was a problem with some
of the girls in this group feeling intimidated by other girls. Ask parents
to speak with their daughters as a way of getting help to determine what
actually happened so that you can restore a sense of safety to the group
that may have been compromised. Stress that you do not know if their
daughter was ever victimized or witnessed anything and that her comments
will be kept confidential. If you take this step, it would be important
to reassure parents that you are not accusing their daughter and that
your goal is to get better information so you will know how to keep this
sort of thing from happening in the future. (Two books you can use as
references are Best Friends, Worst Enemies, by Michael Thompson and Catherine
O'Neill Grace; and Odd Girl Out, by Rachel Simmons.)

Eventually, you may not be able to do what Lauren's mother wants you
to do because Lacey will probably not confess, and Lauren will probably
not want to confront her accused tormentor. You could offer to put Lauren
in a group without Lacey, but that may not be feasible depending on the
size of that age group. Even if she were in a different group, it does
not guarantee that Lauren will never have contact with Lacey.

You can offer Lauren better supervision, increased vigilance of the
staff (better monitoring, etc.), but again, Lauren may need help summoning
the courage to report any abuse when it happens. This may not be the
answer Lauren or her mother are looking for, but one focus of our work
with bullying, for both boys and girls, is building resilience and resistance
in kids who get targeted. Bullies, after all, choose their victims for
a reason. However, even a girl with strong character will find it terribly
difficult to stand up to an entire group that has been marshaled against
her. That is why you should incorporate activities in your program with
teen girls that help raise the awareness level of both staff and campers
of this behavior.

Though it may not be "traditional camp programming," boys and girls
need to have regularly scheduled, guided discussions about bullying,
harassment, and other topics. Good questions are as follows:

  • Have you ever been threatened or intimidated by other boys/girls?
  • Have you ever seen another boy/girl be threatened or bullied?
  • What actually happened? What was it like, watching it happen or
    having it happen to you?
  • What do you think makes someone bully another kid?
  • What do adults typically do about it?
  • What should adults do that they are not doing now?
  • What can we do to make camp a place that is safe from bullying?

The more personal sharing, the more powerful it can be in preventing
such behavior happening at camp.

You will also need to educate your staff about bullying. Lead them through
the same personal discussion as you would campers, using the questions
above. Train them to watch for subtle signs of distress or threatening
behavior in campers. Encourage staff to "hang out discreetly" (after
lights out, on the porch of a cabin, etc.) to listen for covert signs
of intimidation. Have all staff be mindful of their own behavior (teasing,
ostracizing, humiliating) and to take a stand when they see signs of
bullying so that the safety of the group is not eroded.

Dear Bob,

We had an eleven-year-old boy bring a hunting knife to camp last summer
unbeknownst to us. About ten days into the session, he pulled it on another
boy and threatened to cut him. Luckily, a counselor intervened and apprehended
the knife. Both knife and boy went home. When we called his mother (parents
are divorced), she was upset that her "day was ruined" by having to come
get her son, and why couldn't we just keep him another three days until
the end of the session. When she came to pick him up (three hours later
than we had agreed on), she jumped out of her car and immediately began
berating him, saying how he had "ruined her evening."

Help! The kid was wrong. Yet, I can't help but think that his mom wasn't
helping him get on the right track. Any suggestions?

- Safe at Camp

Dear Safe,

Several points. First, the answer to, "Can't you just keep him?" is
a simple, firm, but polite, "No. I can understand how disruptive this
must be for you (pause) . . . and . . . we can not guarantee your son's
safety or the safety of the boys in his group."

Second, I think what you are trying to say is that this mother has made
this whole incident about her. (One wonders what this boy has to do before
someone realizes he needs help - not that his behavior is acceptable
or should be excused.) Make it clear to the mother that when she comes
to get her son you would like to meet with the two of them together.
At that meeting say to her in front of him, "We all know your son's behavior
was not okay, and he knows that is why he is going home. And . . . everybody
knows that when a boy does something like this, he is telling us he needs
help with something. You must be as concerned about him as we are."

Even if the mother seems more concerned about her schedule or social
life than her son's well-being, judging her is not helpful. It may actually
be that she is overwhelmed or feels at a loss about how to raise her
son on her own. Go the extra mile. Agree to speak with his guidance counselor
in school or his pediatrician as a way of getting him some help. Agree
to be available to speak to this person, and reiterate your concern for
the boy. You might also tell him that, if he can get some help, you are
open to the possibility of his returning to camp next year. He will hear
your concern. Let's hope the mother does, too.

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

Originally published in the 2003 March/April issue
of Camping Magazine.