In the Trenches: Changing Practices to Meet a Growing Concern

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

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 percent of "crisis calls" to the hotlines of those companies involved incidents of camper-to-camper abuse; at the time, this was 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). The concern about potential bullying behavior at camp is growing.

The apprehension of parents has been easy to track and has increased perceptively since September 11. 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, and the worry over terrorism, parents have a more generalized anxiety 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 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, there 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 eight-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

The need for better supervision of campers, starting with better check-ins with bunk staff, has become increasingly important. 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 children who had family members who perished in the 9-11 attacks.

Sitting with the staff of individual bunks for thirty minutes each day brought to light numerous behaviors that might otherwise have remained unknown to the administration. Many of these challenging behaviors were well handled by the superb, hand-picked staff at America's camp. But the experience convinced me that regular check-ins can be 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 understand your expectations. 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 (including medication).
  • has been threatening to run away.

The above list can easily be modified for day camps.

Checking with Staff about Staff

Along with a thorough list of check-in questions regarding campers, include questions about fellow staff that provide additional confirmation, 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 (e.g., threatening or harassing someone, including in a sexual way or 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

Many 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 the 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!

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 BobDitter1@aol.com or by fax at 617-572-3373. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by American Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2004 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.

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