Building Bully-Proof Bunks

I’m a big believer in the transformational power of summer camp. No doubt it’s a belief that stems from my long-ago Santa Cruz Mountain summers spent under the canopy of redwood trees at Camp Swig. In so many ways, camp has had a lasting influence on me; I can even credit my career as an educator back to those summers. In my experience, summer camps are wonderful places for children to engage with the world in a safe space, one that allows them to take chances, whether they are the physical challenges of a ropes course or emotional ones such as interacting with strangers in a new setting. Ideally, camp should allow children to have fun and grow at the same time.

030714_insider-Building-Bully-Proof-BunksThough I have many fond memories of camp, I can vividly recall being the object of bullying by other campers and counselors during a week spent at a YMCA camp the summer before seventh grade. I can barely remember what I ate for dinner last week, but this experience remains a clear memory. Also vivid in my recollection is the response of the camp director and even my parents that this experience was something to be endured and pushed through — a “boys will be boys” sort of thing.

Educator and child development specialist Dr. Kim Storey says that bullying occurs when a person or a group excludes, torments, ridicules, spreads rumors, strikes or insults with the intent to hurt another. It takes place when an individual or multiple individuals desire to exercise power over another and to use their power to achieve their goals.

Fortunately, times have changed. We no longer see bullying as an oppressive initiatory rite that children must tolerate. As a society, we realize that the psychological and physical suffering caused by bullying behaviors can lead to persistent negative consequences. It can undermine all the positive things that camps should offer children, their sense of personal security, connectedness and feelings of self-confidence. It affects their potential to make friends, have fun and engage in new experiences. Yet despite our new awareness, bullying still happens. What can camps do to prevent it?

According to Joan Grayson Cohen, manager of access services at Jewish Community Services, bullying happens “during transition periods, when children are not so occupied and outside the direct line of sight of supervising adults.” Children antagonize each other all the time. What makes bullying insidious, according to Grayson Cohen, “is that it is based on a large power differential between the bully and victim.” When attending school this interaction can happen in the cafeteria, during recess, in the bathrooms or hallways — wherever adult observation is minimal. At camp, bullying can occur over the course of free time, transitions between activities, in the shower or at night when counselors may be outside the bunk.

Camp Milldale’s new director, Amy Bram, says it is critical to train staff “to be able to recognize the difference between bullying and normal banter between children.” Disagreements or rough play where no one is distressed, and there was never any intention to cause hurt, is not bullying. “The tricky part is to recognize it and act accordingly,” says Bram. There must be an intention to harm a person who is perceived to possess less status. Kids who are able to resolve a conflict and emerge satisfied with the outcome is a positive result, she notes.

Bram says that in addition to having an on-site social worker during the summer, Camp Milldale’s staff spends seven days prior to the start of camp in extensive training sessions where they focus on bullying prevention.

“We want our staff to be able to identify things that may fly under the radar in other circumstances — the awkward silences, the tight cliques that exclude other children. By understanding and dealing with the subtle behaviors of kids, we can create a positive environment for all campers,” she says.

Children at Camp Milldale build friendships while enjoying aquatic activities.

Children at Camp Milldale build friendships while enjoying aquatic activities.

David Schimmel, director of Beth Tfiloh Camps, says his staff instills the idea that campers are part of a big group, one that works together as a team. “Campers should feel that they are part of a larger community, one that has responsibility for each member.” By creating strong relationships between campers and staff, and campers and each other, Schimmel believes campers will be less apprehensive about asking for help and less likely to be bullied.

Both directors feel that when problems do arise at camp, they need to be addressed immediately. Bram believes that frequent and honest communication with parents goes a long way toward building a bully-free environment. “If we think there is a problem, or have a concern about a child or group of children, we will contact parents,” says Bram. “And if they have any concerns of their own, we want them to contact us immediately.”

Schimmel agrees. “Parents should never be surprised about what their children experienced at camp. If a child tells a parent about a problem, we want to know about it so it can be solved.”

Shimmel believes Beth Tfiloh’s multipronged approach is having a positive impact.

“This seems to be less of a problem than even four years ago,” he says. “Children are more willing to report situations where they or someone else felt bullied.” That’s welcome news to Schimmel, who insists that camp is all about having fun. “Children should not be prevented from having a great time by anyone else.”

Jonathan Willis is a local freelance writer.

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