Bunking with bullies: how camps can keep kids safe

For many kids, this brief vacation away from home is a joyous time. For others, it can be more like an episode of “Survival” or a chapter from Lord of the Flies.

That’s because bullies go to camp, too. And because anti-bullying training and prevention programs, which have become the “in” thing in schools, are not as common there. As a result, camp life can become a nasty breeding ground for bullying.

The peak period for bullying behavior is between ages 10 and 14, which coincides with when most boys and girls attend camp. Unlike the school environment, sleep-away camps are less structured, supervised mostly by teen counselors rather than older adults, often more concerned with homesickness than bullying, and more isolated. In such a confined atmosphere, battle-scarred bullies can enjoy a captive audience of nervous newbies who must live with them 24/7.

“There used to be a belief that this was just the way it is,” Larry Dieringer, executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility, told The New York Times. “Columbine changed all that.”

After the 1999 shooting massacre at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado, in which two longtime bully victims took out their frustration by killing one teacher and 12 students, educators got the message: Leaving victimized kids to fend for themselves is like letting infants learn how to use matches. Sustained bullying affects mental health and increases the risk of homicide and suicide.

Camp bullying prevention programs can work.

Camps are starting to bring in special anti-bullying trainers and incorporate anti-bullying programs and measures into their staff orientations and activities because administrators fear litigation from victims’ parents and want to ensure camper retention. Bullied kids don’t come back.

Nevertheless, some of the following methods they’re using might be useful in schools and other youth centers:

Cool counselors. Schools have Mrs. Keuchenmeister for chemistry. Camps have Rick for rock-climbing. Research has shown that nonviolence training conducted by older peers can be effective in changing young people’s behavior because children listen more to teens about bullying than to older people.

Diverse groupings. Bullies, whether in camp or school, tend to entrench themselves in certain areas. At camp, it’s usually the bunk or mess hall. To prevent this, divide kids up for activities by age group or alphabetical order rather than by cabin. At the mess hall, rotate seating.

Positive opportunities. Camps create an atmosphere for young people to succeed and gain confidence. In addition to physical challenges, there are crafts, skits and other activities that less athletic kids can try. The more a child’s self-esteem is enhanced, the more he or she will be able to withstand bullying.

New friends. Going to camp means new faces, friends, and cultures, and activities are centered on positive social interaction, which can make it harder for bullies to operate.

Clean slate. In camp, kids are away from their normal school, home, and neighborhood environment. Any problems, stigmas, or stereotypes that plagued them there can, for a short time at least, vanish in camp.

Does your school have a problem with bullies? Check out our free anti-bullying resources and lesson plans and learn more about our anti-bullying workshops for educators, coaches, and parents.

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