Violence in My Camp?

On April 20, a teacher and fourteen students died violent deaths in the place where they had expected to be safe. The mothers of school students in Littleton, Colorado, thought it couldn’t happen in their community. That was the kind of problem other communities might face, but not theirs. Perhaps camp directors have thought the same thing. Not in my camp!

It would be naive, however, to assume that no camp will experience problems of violence, weapons possession, or threats against others.

But if more than a million kids carried guns to school last year (a statistic quoted by the National Community Safety Institute), wouldn’t it be short-sighted of us to say that none of that million went to camp? Or are coming to camp?

Of course, we don’t know the answer to how many of them went or are coming to camp. It would be naive, however, to assume that no camp will experience problems of violence, weapons possession, or threats against others. Or that no camp will have an angry camper who threatens violence at some point over the course of the summer. How do we cope?

Securing the Site

The day after the Littleton, Colorado situation, I surfed the Web and looked at sites that dealt with violence in schools. I found in that research that schools use a variety of methods to deal with security:


Percent of Public Schools Utilizing the Measure

Daily metal detector checks  1
Random metal detector checks  4
Drug sweeps  19
Controlled access to school grounds 24
Controlled access to school buildings 53
Closed campus during lunch 80
Visitors must sign in  96

It was interesting to see how few schools are able to, or have chosen to use detectors — the prevention method that gets a lot of newspaper coverage. Yet, in the past seven school years, at least 196 children have died as a result of being shot, another thirty-five have been stabbed to death, and eleven more have been kicked or beaten to death (National School Safety Center statistics).

While the camp industry lacks centralized statistics, deaths that occur in camps occur primarily because of drowning or vehicular accident.

Does that mean we can be casual about violence? By no means!

Recognizing the Risk

The consensus of experts is that site security is, at best, a very elusive target. When reading information from school safety authorities, much more emphasis in prevention was focused on the recognition of the warning signs that precede violence. See the checklist which follows that identifies those signs to which attention must be given to work with kids effectively.

Training must be given to staff to help them recognize these signs of potential risk, and camps must be ready to provide interventions to provide support to campers or staff members who fit the profile. This is a great topic for staff training, or perhaps a good place in your staff agenda to invite mental health professionals from your community for input.

Are Camps Different Than Schools?

There are some ways in which camps have the potential of an advantage over schools.

  • A greater level of supervision. Generally, camps average a 1:7 or 8 ratio, where schools may have 1:20 or 30.

  • Camp is usually a positive choice for campers and staff; school is mandatory.

  • Campers generally don’t come to camp with rage already at the boiling point in relation-ships between campers or campers and staff.

  • Counselors are with campers through the entire day. Observation time is not limited to fifty-minute increments.

Of course, there are some challenges. Staff are young. They do not always have experience in recognizing negative behaviors in persons they supervise. Staff may sense that asking for help is a sign of weakness.

Once again, supervision is a critically important element in working with campers and staff. Be sure your staff know you are there to support them, not to criticize. We cannot assume that the relative infrequency of such incidents in camps means that we have it all together and are immune.

It is incumbent on every camp to take appropriate steps to protect campers, to implement safety precautions on the site, to train the staff, to establish and rehearse procedures, and to be diligent in matters of safety.

What steps can camps take?

In addition to staff training on recognizing potentially violent behavior, consider the following:

  • Be clear in your final letter to parents before the summer about your policies on weapons.

  • Establish a policy about searching belongings of campers or staff (see CampLine, October 1998 for specifics). Note that some camps already tell parents of their policy to help campers unpack their luggage and inventory items to help them go home with everything they brought.

  • Establish and enforce procedures for identifying visitors on camp property. Require that they "sign in" and wear some identifiable badge so that campers and staff can quickly determine if there are unauthorized persons in camp.

  • One director is considering asking parents to sign a form indicating they checked camper luggage to determine that no inappropriate items were brought to camp.

Which, if any, of these procedures you use will be determined by your philosophy, your relationship with your clientele, your previous history with campers and staff, and your intuition about what is right after considering all the factors. We suggest you make this decision deliberately, not by default.

Whether you institute any other procedures,

  • it is critical that you train staff in how to deal with violence, aggression, withdrawal, rejection, or failing to acknowledge the feelings or rights of others.

  • capitalize on the positive benefits of camp, which are recognized deterrents to violence — activities and positive interactions that raise self-esteem and teach problem-solving skills in a supervised, supportive atmosphere.


Originally published in the 1999 Spring issue of The CampLine.