During the summer of 2003, the words "4-H Camp Fight Club" were commonly seen on national television news or in major newspapers and national magazines. Perhaps you first read about the incident in Newsweek or saw a report on Inside Edition. Although Virginia's 4-H camp program is American Camping Association accredited, and "camp safety" is annually rated by campers and counselors as one of the best aspects of the Virginia 4-H camp program (Garst 2003), on July 4, 2003, issues of camp-related violence made this program a news headline.
The news reports were shocking to parents, camp staff, camp volunteers, and camp administrators. In short, the resulting investigation determined that three 4-H camp teen volunteer counselors — ages fifteen to sixteen years old — had encouraged youth campers to fight and/or had failed to stop campers from fighting. Yes, these 4-H camp teen volunteer counselors had been trained in policies related to child abuse, youth supervision, risk management, and the importance of treating youth with respect. In fact, they had received multiple years of training. The teen volunteer counselors had also signed a camp code-of-conduct form that clearly identified that "aggressive, abusive, vulgar, or violent language and behavior towards others" is not tolerated. Nonetheless, these camp volunteer counselors chose to break these policies and quickly became involved in a situation in which they were abusing their power and their responsibility to keep campers safe and happy.
The occurrence at the Virginia 4-H camp was an isolated event that brought to light several prevalent youth issues that exist not only in the camp environment but also in school and other organized youth settings. Primary among those issues is the need to address a serious youth issue that exists among all kids today . . . bullying. Bullying has become such a national concern that in early December 2003 the federal government declared it a public health issue warranting a $3.4 million campaign to combat the problem. The campaign will draw support from more than seventy education, law enforcement, civic, and religious groups and include tools such as Web sites, animated Web episodes, commercials, and a network of nonprofit groups to help raise awareness and offer tips (CNN Associated Press 2003). There is some encouraging news. Although negative events can occur at camp, as they can in many other youth settings, the camp environment may be one of the most ideal settings for addressing issues of bullying among campers and teen volunteer counselors.
Bullying is now being understood as a group phenomenon, as opposed to an event or exchange that happens between two or three kids. Bullying is a social problem where the whole bullying incident is supported by the bystander (Espelage 2003; Craig & Pepler 1997; Salmivalli et al. 1996). This is important because in most cases the symptoms of bullying are the focus of treatment while the overall problem remains untreated. To address the problem, intervention should be directed toward the participants and the witnesses (Salmivalli 1999). A "one-shot" training session for campers and teen volunteer counselors that focuses on tips for handling bullying situations, for example, may not be sufficient to reduce the over-all presence of bullying. This type of training may be helpful in developing an awareness of the presence of bullying and providing tips on what to do if a specific incident occurs. However, it may not be very effective reducing the presence of bullying. Ultimately, it is the entire environment that must be changed if bullying is to decrease (Lumsden 2003 and Olweus 1993).
Camp, the Place for Change
Recent articles in Camping Magazine regarding the many aspects of "camp culture" recognize that the camp environment is a complex social world. To change behavior at camp requires managing different aspects of this environment. What better place to create positive change over time and work as a group to develop a bully-free environment, than at camp? Here's why . . . .
First, there needs to be honest discussions about bullying. A camp environment should be created that makes everyone comfortable enough to openly discuss the topic. The use of popular movies, videos, music, and questionnaires, for example, are great ways to open a bullying discussion. One evening of camp activities and/or entertainment or teen volunteer training can be used for this purpose. When incorporating movies, for example, select those that deal with issues of bullying or violence and include young characters to which kids can relate. Allow structured time after the movie to discuss the bullying or violence that took place among the characters, and discuss how this relates to events in their lives. Any tools that open discussion about bullying should be age appropriate, yet powerful enough to develop an awareness of the topic's seriousness.
To continue discussions about bullying, it may be beneficial to have one to two separate sessions for males and females that address differences between male and female bullying. Research indicates that male and females bully in different ways. Male bullies tend to use more physical violence than female bullies, although female bullies are increasingly using physical violence at an alarming rate. Additionally, males will more likely bully individuals they do not know very well, and the bullying behavior is fairly easy to identify when it is observed. Females are more likely to bully within social circles, and it is more difficult to identify the many nonverbal methods they use to bully one another (Simmons 2002). Thus, having some discussion in separate environments will allow males and females to freely discuss bullying issues that are unique to them.
Second, it is necessary to give campers and teen volunteers an arsenal of solutions to address bullying situations. Ask them to share "real life" bullying incidents. Next, create role play or group exercises around those incidents. Use one or two camp sessions to allow kids to practice the role play or group scenarios. It is very important that the exercises mimic real life. These exercises help kids develop tools, practice their actions, and maneuver through the types of bullying situations that may affect them.
Campers and teen volunteer counselors should be allowed to develop their own rules and environment for dealing with bullying issues that may occur at camp. To achieve permanent change, there should be less emphasis placed on delivering negative consequences to those who bully (although this is still necessary) and more emphasis placed on teaching positive behaviors to the entire group through coaching, modeling, prompting, and praise. Those who supervise camp staff should focus on creating a positive environment that does not nurture bullying. Additional sessions should be spent teaching campers and teen volunteer counselors about anger management, mediation, and conflict resolution.
Finally, campers and teen volunteer counselors should take time to reconvene as a large group to develop their own anti-bullying policy and the environment that they would like to see at camp. Allow them to develop their own rules for addressing those who don't follow suit. Children are more creative than you may think! A "Zero Tolerance for Bullying" policy created by campers and teen volunteer counselors will serve as a powerful resource for reducing bullying incidents. Basically, it empowers kids to police themselves. If the bully does not have an audience, there is no stage for performing.
The entire process creates a model for young people to understand the steps of developing a positive social environment that does not tolerate bullying. It will empower them with a process to take from camp and utilize in other environments such as school, organized sports, and other group activities where bullying is prevalent. Further, it is important to develop a process for creating a commitment among 4-H'ers to conduct similar projects or activities within their individual communities once they return home (Hairston 2004).
The Counselors' Important Role
In the Virginia 4-H camping incident the teen volunteer counselors provoked the violent situation. Teen volunteer counselors who are entrusted with the responsibility of developing positive learning experiences for young campers must be held accountable for their actions and must be held to the highest standard. There should be clear anti-bullying policies for teen volunteer counselors that address actions for those who do not follow suit. Furthermore, that policy should be clearly communicated with teen volunteer counselors.
Ironically, a natural connection exists between teen volunteer counselors and campers to create positive behaviors. There is actually unrecognized power in using trained teen volunteer counselors to address issues of bullying with young campers. Research indicates that nonviolence training conducted by older peers is particularly powerful in changing children's behavior about issues of bullying, because younger children are more likely to listen to what teens have to say about bullying. Any camp director or camp staff member can explain this phenomenon. The reason is simple: "Younger kids don't look up to old people, they look up to teens (Lumsden 2003)." Social-psychology explains this as the tendency that we all have to look to similar others to better understand ourselves and our world.
For Virginia's teen volunteer counselors, being trained to specifically address issues of bullying and being responsible for creating an environment that nurtures nonviolent behavior may have empowered them to make different decisions about issues of violence among the campers they supervised. Furthermore, preparing young campers to create an anti-bullying environment at camp may have empowered them to speak out about the incident as soon as it was witnessed or experienced. Being entrusted with educating others about a topic is often the best way to learn the topic. Therefore, training teen volunteer counselors to help campers create a "non-bullying" camp environment will not only reduce the presence of bullying among campers, but it will also help counselors openly discuss and deal with issues of bullying amongst themselves. Additionally, being empowered with the responsibility of serving as positive role models will hold teen volunteers personally accountable for their own behavior as they supervise young campers and create a positive experience the campers may never forget.
Jewel E. Hairston, Ph.D., earned a B.S. degree in career and technical education from James Madison University. She received both her master's degree and Ph.D. from Virginia Tech. After teaching at Bowling Green State University in Ohio for two years, Hairston returned to Virginia and joined the Virginia Cooperative Extension as a 4-H youth development specialist in November 2001.
Barry Garst, M.S., received a B.S. degree in psychology from Virginia Tech and his M.S. degree in recreation administration from Arizona State University — with an emphasis in youth program evaluation. He joined Virginia Cooperative Extension as the program director of the Smith Mountain Lake 4-H Educational Conference Center and became a 4-H youth development specialist in January 2001. Barry is currently working on his Ph.D. in the Department of Forestry (Natural Resources Recreation) at Virginia Tech.
Originally published in the 2004 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.