Friday, January 14, 2011

A Few Bad Apples

I have been an adult volunteer with the Boy Scouts of America for decades. Having been greatly benefited by the program as a youth, I have seen this as an attempt to “give back more to scouting than it has given to me,” as I promised to do when I received the Eagle rank.

Scouting today has many of the same elements it had when I was a boy. But Scouting has also changed in many ways.

In my youth it was common for a lone scoutmaster to accompany boys on campouts and at meetings with other adults present only occasionally. Scouts regularly engaged in activities that would be considered far too risky today. Scouts were expected to learn, internalize, and act on safety and emergency response principles.

When we were at summer camp one year, a boy stepped outside of the axe yard to chop on a nearby fallen tree. Without adequately checking for clearance, he swung the axe back and then brought it forward to strike a mighty blow. Unfortunately it caught the axe yard rope just below the axe head. The rope stretched just far enough to allow my friend to get the axe in front of him. Then the rope stretched back, pulling on the axe and causing the butt of the axe head to strike my friend on the side of his forehead.

We dressed the wound and our scoutmaster drove my friend into town. When they returned a couple of hours later, my friend had seven stitches in his head. The boy’s parents had been notified. He completed the week at camp despite the injury. Nobody thought the scoutmaster had any culpability in the event. Instead we all learned the lesson that it is important to obey all of the axe safety rules we had been taught.

I remember hearing as a youth about a number of scouts being killed on their way to summer camp. They were riding in the back of a large farm truck when it slid off a dirt road and rolled over. After that tragedy, the BSA prohibited riding in a truck bed during a scouting event. That didn’t stop the practice. It still occurs today. But it is far rarer than it once was.

Up until the early 1980s the BSA had dealt with a handful lawsuits each year, almost always dealing with an injury or a death. Then one year the BSA was hit with a huge number of child abuse lawsuits, most of them dealing with sexual abuse. The BSA’s insurance premiums went up 1,200% in a single year.

The next year, the BSA implemented a new youth protection program. One of the central features was two-deep adult leadership, meaning that there will always be two responsible adults present at a BSA activity, and that no one-on-one adult-youth contact is permitted.

The youth protection program has evolved over the years as society has become more litigious and as the organization’s leaders have become aware of threats, patterns, and additional information. (See Youth Protection Guidelines.) Today, no one is supposed to be allowed to begin volunteer service with the BSA until they complete the organization’s youth protection training and pass a background check.  Background checks are done each time an adult changes positions.

As an adult leader, youth protection also protects me. With two-deep leadership in place, I should always have at least one other adult around to keep my back and protect me from false accusations, a phenomenon that has been known to happen.

The threat of child sexual abusers being involved in youth programs is real. At least three adults that I personally knew and that were involved in scouts when I was a youth subsequently went to jail or prison for child sexual abuse. Although I was never a victim, I knew at least one victim and now suspect that several others that I knew were victims. It is fitting to take appropriate precautions to prevent abuse.

Although there are real abusers lurking about, writer Lenore Skenazy opines in this WSJ op-ed that we have gone overboard. Every man is now a suspect first. While trying to protect our kids, we have, says Ms. Skenazy, fostered an environment where all men are treated as potential predators.

While I did know three men when I was young that have been confirmed to be predators, I have known scores of morally upstanding men that have graciously spent their time and talents bettering the lives of youth. In Ms. Skenazy’s estimation, our whole society has arrived at the point where we paint the faces of the three abusers on all of these men. They are guilty until proven otherwise. She writes:

“Last week, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Timothy Murray, noticed smoke coming out of a minivan in his hometown of Worcester. He raced over and pulled out two small children, moments before the van's tire exploded into flames. At which point, according to the AP account, the kids' grandmother, who had been driving, nearly punched our hero in the face … [because] she thought he might be a kidnapper.”
Skenazy points out several examples that show that “regular folks” have taken to seeing all men as would-be abusers. This perception is pervasive enough that men now take care to distance themselves from situations that might provide grounds for the slightest suspicion of predatory behavior. As a society we are erecting a wall between men and children. This can have nasty side effects. Skenazy recounts:
“In England in 2006, BBC News reported the story of a bricklayer who spotted a toddler at the side of the road. As he later testified at a hearing, he didn't stop to help for fear he'd be accused of trying to abduct her. You know: A man driving around with a little girl in his car? She ended up at a pond and drowned.”
It is as if, aware of the small army of predators in our society, we are taking the TSA approach to child safety. Just as the TSA treats all air travelers as possible terrorists to avoid stigmatizing any group, we now treat all men as probable predators.

As men are treated as de-facto suspects, it will become increasingly difficult to find men willing to volunteer in programs like scouting and little league sports. Men already make up only a small minority of elementary school teachers. Our all-men-are-evil fixation will drive them out of elementary schools completely. There are so many youth that crave positive male role models in their lives. Why are we trying to kill all chances that they will ever have these kinds of interactions? 

As men are walled off from interacting with children by being treated as likely predators, they will be like animals in a zoo.  They will tend to act more like the animals society already suspects them of being.  It will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We all want to make sure that our children are safe. We can do things to reduce risks, but treating all men as potential predators, says Skenazy, is not the sign of a safe society. It’s the sign of a sick society.

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