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

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:


of Public Schools Utilizing the Measure

Daily metal
detector checks 
Random metal
detector checks
Drug sweeps  19
access to school grounds
access to school buildings
Closed campus
during lunch
Visitors must
sign in 

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

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

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.