In the Trenches: In the Weeds

November 2014

At first I didn't see the call. It came to my cell phone from an unfamiliar number at 6:30 one morning in late July. I had been driving since 5:30 on my way to a camp where I was going to be consulting with the head staff. When I listened to the voicemail I could hear the distress in the camp director's voice. "If you have any time today, can you please call me as soon as possible? I'm going to give you my cell. Call any time."

When I finally reached the director of the coed resident camp he told me that a camper had come upon a bag of marijuana in his cabin and had brought it to his head counselor. The director eventually discovered that all three counselors in that camper's cabin had shared responsibility. He had a million questions. "Do I have to fire all three counselors from the same bunk? What do I tell the kids? What, if any, communication do I need to have with camper parents? What do I say to the rest of the staff? Might there be others who have stuff in camp?" Though his gut instinct was that she had to let those three staff members go, the prospect of such an enormous loss of personnel from the same cabin all at once was understandably daunting.

As the summer wore on I received phone calls, e-mails, or had direct conversations with more than 16 camp directors who had various episodes with staff involving marijuana. Weed is back. After going off the radar of many camp professionals — or not ever having been a concern in the first place — recent changes in the laws of several states regarding marijuana have brought it to the foreground. Indeed, one director from an exceptional coed agency camp in the East had to let 11 staff members go at the same time because they had bought a large quantity, which they then divided up among themselves and had in their cabins.

Hope Is Not a Strategy

Some camp professionals have told me they don't talk about marijuana because they don't feel they need to. They do talk about alcohol and about appropriate conduct in the presence of other people's children, and they hope for the best in terms of the judgment of their staff. "If I have to tell them what seems to me to be the obvious, then what does that say about the integrity of my staff?" one director asked me.

I beg to differ. First, we have known for some time that one part of the brain that is involved in judgment isn't fully developed in young women until about age 22 and in young men until about age 25. That means you can hope all you want, but there is cause for concern about the ability of many on your staff to make judgment calls that are in line with the objectives of camp safety.

Secondly, as I have already noted, marijuana is in the news. Both Colorado and Washington State decriminalized marijuana in 2013. California and Massachusetts have made it legal for medical uses. Many young adults assume that it is now okay to use marijuana more openly. As one young man told me this summer, "Attitudes about weed are changing!" Indeed, speaking anecdotally from observations in my clinical practice with teens and young adults who are in the same age bracket as camp counselors, it is clear that among high school and college students recreational marijuana use is at an all-time high, so to speak.

Upfront, Direct, and Real

One attitude that isn't changing is the concern camp parents have about the safety and well-being of their children. They want assurance that the counselors caring for their youngsters will do so with the safety and well-being of their children in mind at all times. I have occasionally asked staff members, "So, how would it be if you had to call a parent and say, 'Hey, one of the counselors — the one who takes care of your child — has weed in the cabin. Is that okay with you?' The answer is obvious.

Camp professionals' position on marijuana should be no different than their position on alcohol: "The choices you make in the privacy of your own personal life are yours and yours alone; but when you enter the sacred space we call camp and take on the care of other people's children, the calculus changes. In exchange for the privilege of being able to care for, be close to, and influence kids, you have to give up certain personal freedoms. Your use of substances is one such freedom." It is important to acknowledge that current events around the legalization of marijuana may have clouded some people's thinking on this, so as a camp director you need to be crystal clear: "The possession of weed in camp will get you fired or sent out of the community."

Taking a firm stance on having a weed-free camp has nothing to do with one's personal views about marijuana. It has to do with maintaining a community based on trust with parents and with the utmost concern for the campers. "Kids first" is a motto every camp should adopt, and that includes making sacrifices that permit you to be a part of this special, indeed sacred, place for children. Camp directors need to say exactly that to their staff during orientation every summer.

Managing the Fallout

When a staff member's possession or use of any illicit substance comes to the awareness of campers, there is no other option but to let that staff member go. As my good friend and colleague, Jay Jacobs says, "Once the misbehavior reaches the customer (the camper), you have no choice!" Taking this action should be no surprise to the rest of your staff if you have given them fair warning. You will need to take several steps once a staff member backs you into this decision, and they include the following:

  1. Communicate with the rest of the staff about the infraction and resulting action.
  2. Talk to campers whose counselor is being let go.
  3. Inform camper parents about the incident.

Let me make just a few comments about each.

Staff

The best way to minimize the rumor mill among staff and maintain their trust is to tell them whenever you let a colleague of theirs go. This can take as little as five minutes and should be done face-to-face by the director as soon after the event as possible. The staff need to know: 1) that the staff member who was let go broke a critical boundary at camp and there was no choice but to have them leave; 2) that campers will ask about it and everyone needs to have the same story; and 3) that you may need to lean on them to help fill any gaps opened by the now absent staff member(s). It is important to be clear and nonpunishing when delivering this message. I have heard directors say something like, "And if I find out that any of you have had marijuana or alcohol in camp, you'll be leaving too!" This is like blaming the entire staff for the mistakes of a few. Doing so immediately and unnecessarily lowers morale. There is nothing like firing a staff member for misconduct to clear up any ambiguities about what the rules are.

Campers

The most awkward task is talking to campers, many of whom may have an attachment to the staff member(s) let go. I recommend affirming the positive traits of the staff member first ("Patrick was a great guy and a lot of campers and other staff really liked him.") before simply stating that, "Patrick unfortunately made a mistake and did something that broke trust with camp. It is normal for you to be curious about exactly what happened, but that is private to Patrick. I am sure many of you have things that are private about you, so I hope you can respect Patrick's privacy and trust that we wouldn't let anyone go if he or she hadn't made a seriously wrong choice."

Parents

When it comes to camper parents the issue is both about trust and clarity. Ask yourself, would you rather have parents hear from you what happened or leave it up to the rumor mill? When you contact the parents of the campers whose counselor was involved, you have the advantage of shaping the message yourself. If you wait you may end up responding to parent calls and e-mails and finding yourself in a defensive and reactive position. Parents appreciate transparency. "We have worked hard to earn your trust, and we want to do everything we can to keep that trust," is a great way to open your call to parents. By being upfront with them, and in this case I am referring only to the parents of the campers whose counselor was involved, you are making a much more important statement: "You can always count on us to maintain safety and to take the right action when anyone in our community may have compromised that safety."

There are few places in the world where children can count on the adults to do the right thing and communicate clearly and openly with them and their parents on their behalf. Camp certainly can be one of them.

Recent Changes is Marijuana Laws
On November 6, 2012, the States of Colorado and Washington passed an amendment (Colorado Amendment 64 and Washington Initiative 502, respectively) that legalized the possession of marijuana in those states. In November 2013, Massachusetts joined California in legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. At least 21 states have legalized marijuana or reduced criminal possession of the substance. For a more complete picture of the current laws in the various states, see www.governing.com/gov-data/statemarijuana-laws-map-medical-recreational.html.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by American Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2014 November/December Camping Magazine.