Tuesday, June 21, 2005

How Do We Keep Youth Campers Safe?

OK, I’m officially freaked out right now. I’m leaving in the morning for the first of three (maybe four) major youth group camps that I will attend this summer. I’ll be headed to Southern Utah in the morning with Varsity Scouts, and will be headed to the Tetons next week with Boy Scouts. I may end up going to Cub Scout camp the week after that. Later in July I will be going to youth conference with mixed group of 14-18-year-olds. Then there are more camps in the fall: Order of the Arrow, Camp-O-Ree, etc.

I have been involved in the Scouting program since age 8 and have volunteered as an adult leader in many different positions for over two decades. Over the years I have been in charge of literally hundreds of youth for a variety of camping experiences, both at organized camps and on wilderness treks. My groups have dealt with temporarily lost subgroups, injuries, illnesses, and even helping another group that had an adult die in the Wind Rivers back country. But I have never lost an individual camper.

I was very concerned last year when Garrett Bardsley disappeared in the High Uintas. But I am just heartsick about the disappearance of Brennan Hawkins at an organized scout camp in the Uintas this past weekend. Cripes! A boy disappearing from an organized scout camp surrounded by 1400 other people! Whoever heard of such a thing?

I have boys of my own around the same ages as these two boys. Despite the fact that my boys (as kids will do) sometimes give me problems, I would be absolutely devastated if any of them were to go missing. From the point of view of a scout leader, I would be crushed if our group lost a child. I can sense the utter loss that everyone involved with the Hawkins situation must feel right now. My deepest sympathies go out to them.

A friend of mine that is on the Weber County Search and Rescue team has participated in both the Bardsley and Hawkins searches. He has been on hundreds of searches, but says that these two are unusual. Usually they turn up something related to the lost person – some kind of clue – but in these cases there has simply been nothing. Though he doesn’t want to think about it, he wonders if something sinister is afoot.

Both boys went missing in the same area. The locations are about 15 miles apart, although, Garrett Bardsley was lost in rougher terrain at a much higher altitude. The boys look similar and are of a smaller build. Both boys were quiet, shy types that had some academic and social problems. Both boys were individually separated from their groups. Is there a pedophile predator hanging around those parts? A scout camp would look like a smorgasbord to a creep like that.

Of course, I have heard plenty of knee-jerk reactions from people about this situation. Many seem willing to implement more government oversight. I’m afraid that we end up with some of our more restrictive public policies due to emotional responses to emotional issues. Some want to require $300 beacons to be attached to each camper. Some want to require more extensive and expensive training. Mind you, we already do a heck of a lot of training. Some want to discontinue youth camping programs altogether. While one lost camper is too many, along the Wasatch Front we send literally tens of thousands of youth into the back country every year without major incident. Shall we punish them all due to these two high profile situations?

The adult leaders of our scout troop got together over the weekend to discuss how we will ensure the safety of our boys. Each boy will be required to wear a color coded bandana in plain sight and will be required to have a safety whistle around his neck 24x7. But in the end, we decided that the old-time BSA rules will be the mainstay of our plan.

#1: We will strictly apply the buddy system. No one goes anywhere, not even to the latrine, without a buddy. It’s more difficult for two to run into problems or to be grabbed by a creep than one. One of our volunteers that is a retired parole officer threatens that he will handcuff violators of this policy to each other. #2: If a boy gets lost he is to stay put and blow three blasts on his whistle every minute until someone finds him.

I hurt inside for those affected by the Bardsley and Hawkins situations, but I feel strongly that we have a duty to provide wholesome camping activities for our youth so that they can experience and learn to respect the natural world around us. I sincerely hope that the groups with which I am involved come home without major incident. We are implementing a plan to try to ensure that this happens. I hope all youth camping groups this summer do something similar.

1 comment:

Scott Hinrichs said...

The news is now reporting that Brennan Hawkins has been found alive and in pretty good condition near Lily Lake. God be praised! I pulled it up on www.mapcard.com and it's not that far from the camp where he was lost. I am grateful that for search and rescue people.