Last year, our oldest male campers, who were spending their final summer at our camp, petitioned us to allow them to return for an additional season. As a result, this summer for the first time we had campers participate in a counselor-in-training program. In putting together the program, we followed the guidelines for CIT programming that you spell out in your book Lifelines and Safety Nets. We drew up a very structured program, had two of our best staff members oversee it, and gave the boys real, but well-supervised responsibilities with our youngest campers. Eight boys chose to participate, and the program was highly successful. Everyone noticed how hard the boys worked and how seriously they took their duties, especially their contact with the campers.
I mention all of this because the boys knew that we were proud of them and that we trusted them. And they certainly rose to the occasion, taking pride in their work and making many meaningful contributions to the camp community throughout the summer. This group of boys truly became our “spirit team,” and the program that nurtured them may well have been one of the best aspects of our summer.
That is, until one of the boys returned from an out-of-camp trip having secretly purchased a pornographic magazine. As if that weren’t bad enough, he “rented” the magazine to a camper in one of our senior cabins. This is the sort of thing that spreads quickly, and one of our staff members intercepted the magazine and brought it to us.
As you can imagine, we were conflicted about what to do. This young man had earned our trust and had performed in an admirable way, yet this behavior violated our trust. How would you have responded?
— Disappointed along the Delaware
How upsetting it must have been to have discovered that one of your star CITs had made such a grievous mistake. Responding in a way that will turn his gaff into something he can learn from will take real effort, especially given the strong feelings of disappointment you must have experienced.
First, remember that while your CIT made a grave error and violated the faith of both the camp and the parents who entrusted their children to your care, he is still a camper himself and does not carry the same responsibilities of a full-fledged staff member. That means he is still learning, is still apt to make mistakes (even big ones), and requires even more careful supervision that a counselor or adult volunteer.
It also means that your CIT is entitled to a response that will help him realize the ramifications of his misdeed, help him learn from it, and recover some of the integrity he cost the program. After all, you have a different agreement and understanding with CITs, who are just learning about what it takes to be a counselor, than you do with staff members. With staff you expect a higher commitment than you do from CITs because staff assume more direct and primary responsibility for the care and well-being of campers. Therefore, even though everyone in the camp community is held to the same high standard of behavior, the consequences for violating those standards might be different for a staff member than for a CIT. Whereas a staff member might be summarily fired for the same act, a CIT may have other consequences.
These differences in responsibility and consequences may not be apparent to your staff. Therefore, for the sake of clarity and staff morale, as well as to bring home to the CIT how the entire community is affected by an action such as his, the situation (what the CIT did, what the consequences will be, and how you expect the staff to act with regard to being entrusted with this information) should be shared openly with the entire staff. The CIT should be informed that this will be done, but he should not be present during this discussion.
Some people might argue that the CIT, by virtue of the fact that he is a camper, should have his confidentiality protected. However, the act of sharing such highly provocative material as a pornographic magazine with a camper immediately becomes grist for the rumor mill and should therefore be addressed in a forthright manner with your staff. The CIT himself forfeited any confidentiality he may have had when he shared the magazine with the camper.
Understanding the Mistakes
The CIT actually made two mistakes. The first was purchasing the magazine and bringing it to camp. The second, and more serious violation, was sharing it (whether for money or not is, for our purposes, immaterial) with the camper. What the boy needs to see is that these actions breached three areas of trust. The first is with his peers and is related to the integrity of the CIT program itself. All of the hard work he and his peers did to gain trust with the campers, the staff of those campers, the program leaders, and even with one another is jeopardized by his behavior. The reputation of the CIT program is part of this equation. Convincing parents, for example, that their children are safe with CITs is more difficult once something like this happens, and it can affect the reputation of the program for many years to come.
The second area of trust that the boy ruptured was with campers. Even though I am sure the senior boy who “rented” the magazine in the first place may have been initially excited by his acquisition, there is a sacred trust here that needs special handling. As I often say to parents and staff, “Whoever said children always knew what was in their best interest?” Having the strength to risk being unpopular by doing the right thing and getting support from peers to maintain that strong stance are part of what it takes to be a trusted care-taker of children. In other words, even if that senior camper badgered the CIT to let him have the magazine, the CIT cannot give in. If he does, it is he, the CIT, who is ultimately responsible, not the camper.
The third area of trust the boy violated has to do with camper parents. One might ask the boy what it would be like for him to phone the parents of the boy he gave the magazine to and ask them, “What are your thoughts and feelings about the fact that I gave your son a pornographic magazine I illegally brought to camp?” Just having him contemplate such a call will sober him right up. What you can then point out is how such behavior impacts the reputation of the entire camp.
Next, I would convene a meeting of all the CITs and explain the situation. I would take time to ask them what they think, listen to their reactions, and then have the boy publicly apologize to the others.
I would then gather the senior boys together, explain how what happened what “not OK” (a phrase I prefer to use in place of “inappropriate” because it is more kid-friendly), listen for their own thoughts and feelings about the incident, and again have the CIT apologize and admit his mistake.
Finally, I would suggest that the CIT not be able to attend some special or privilege CIT activity, such as a trip to the movies in town or a special dance, and that he use that time to compose a letter of apology to the parents of the camper to whom he “leased” the magazine. Even if you eventually decide not to send that letter, the exercise of writing it will be illuminating.
Again, as a camp director, you must make your own decisions about whether the boy should stay at camp or leave. (There are some infractions, such as the possession of drugs or alcohol or physical abuse of a camper, that would, in my opinion, warrant immediate dismissal.) However, even if you chose to send the boy home, it would be instructive for him to take the steps I have just outlined as a way of restoring some of the trust he has eroded. By having him respond in such a comprehensive way, you may begin to impress on him and the other CITs just how precious trust is to any community and how much effort it takes to maintain or reclaim it once it has been lost.
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 2000 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.