Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Scouting In Utah

A recent letter to the editor in the Standard Examiner by an outdoor recreation professional criticized the outdoor skills of Boy Scouts. The author notes that people in his industry widely consider the Scouts to be “the yahoos of the outdoors.” He credits inadequate leader training as the likely root of the problem.

In response to my recent post, Ethan said that the problem lies not with the Boy Scouts of America organization, but with some of its local leaders.

I have seen the BSA program from many different angles: as a boy in the program, a camp staff worker, an adult volunteer at many different levels (sometimes working closely with Scouting professionals), a parent of boys in the program, a chartered organization representative, etc. I will try to piece together a picture from these varied perspectives.

I have seen the entire gamut of Scouting leadership, from the totally untrained to the highly trained, along with attendant results. There is no question that better trained leaders generally provide better and safer Scouting experiences. While the author of the above cited letter suggests that no BSA outdoor training materials exist, this is simply not the case. The BSA has substantial current training materials and training opportunities.

I had several great Scouting leaders as a boy. The local unit I attended had a strong tradition of quality Scouting. Most of my leaders up until I became an Explorer Scout were well trained and highly committed. My Scoutmaster’s commitment and perseverance helped me achieve the rank of Eagle Scout. My life was positively impacted in a major way because of the Scouting program. From a boy’s point of view, the program is good if it provides adventure, achievement, and good friendships absent of major injuries.

As an Explorer Scout I was temporarily lost in the mountains one night on a snowmobile outing, mainly due to poor attention to safety by my inadequately trained leaders. Fortunately I had enough outdoor experience to keep myself safe in a severe environment until, by the grace of God I was located by my frantic leaders in the wee hours of the morning.

So why does the BSA have safety and environmental problems? Much of it boils down to the fact that it is chiefly a volunteer organization that is privately funded. Most volunteers serve at least out of a sense of duty. Some youth are fortunate enough to have leaders that serve out of a sense of love.

LDS Church units sponsor most BSA units in Utah, although, some BSA units are sponsored by other religious denominations, the PTA, or various civic organizations such as Kiwanis and Rotary. While it is highly desirable to have well trained Scouting volunteers, many leaders in sponsoring organizations are simply grateful to find people that are willing to serve in these positions at all. While they offer training, they usually don’t feel like they are in a position to force volunteers to get properly trained.

Speaking from experience, many leaders in chartering organizations have so many things on their plates that they fail to give adequate attention to training of Scouting leaders. Many organization leaders are unaware of the training opportunities that exist and/or do not feel that their budgets warrant paying for training that has associated costs.

Scouting volunteers already spend at least one night every week running meetings for the boys. They spend more time preparing for these meetings. They run courts of honor, merit badge classes, fundraisers, boards of review, and service projects. They take their vacation time to take the boys camping. The last thing many of these people want is to attend yet another set of meetings that take them away from their families. Most wouldn’t mind being fully trained, but don’t anticipate sufficient benefit to commit additional time to the effort.

Volunteers also teach the training courses. Having participated on many training staffs, I can vouch for the fact that the quality of training varies greatly even if the training materials are the same. When busy people attend a course that is not well run, they have little incentive to become trained.

While the BSA now does a background check on every volunteer leader that registers, it has no certification program for preparing adult leaders. In other words, volunteers are not required to become trained in order to serve. Most training occurs after starting service.

To get a tour permit to take the boys camping or to some other venue, at least one leader in attendance must have watched the BSA’s video about preventing child abuse and one leader attending must have read the Guide to Safe Scouting. However, many untrained leaders don’t bother with tour permits and are quite unaware of the rules of safe Scouting.

Training in outdoor skills and tour management is usually provided through monthly roundtable meetings, but these opportunities usually only show the tip of the iceberg. It is largely up to the volunteer leaders to obtain approved training materials, self train, and/or obtain the needed training. In my district, most volunteers do not attend the monthly meetings because they consider them to be of dubious worth.

Adult volunteers that opt to do so attend the BSA’s advanced training program called Woodbadge. The program is intense and requires one to two years of application in the field following a weeklong initial training to obtain certification. Only the most committed Scouters usually attend this course, usually only after they have been involved in the program for several years.

Should the BSA have a certification program that is required prior to serving as an adult leader? The BSA should probably study this possibility. Requiring rigorous training prior to beginning service could lead to difficulties getting sufficient volunteers. Some units could end up being disbanded. On the other hand, if the certification program was well run enough to become prestigious, volunteers might flock to attend.

Still, the vast majority of Boy Scouts safely pass through their Scouting experiences. Many leaders are adequately trained. Many units are properly environmentally conscious in their outdoor activities. However, it only takes a few that do safety and environmental care poorly to cause a significant and long lasting negative impact. There are frankly still a lot of untrained leaders out there. The BSA and its sponsoring organizations should take this matter seriously and consider what more should be done to adequately address the situation.


Ethan said...

I think you've accurately described scouting. Two points I thought were particularly important were

the amount of time required of leaders who also have jobs and families

and the fact that almost all scouts make it through unscathed.

I too had a mix of leaders. One leader I had cared little for scouting values and used scout activities as "quality time" with his son. You can imagine where that left the rest of us. Bored. Many dropped out.

But I also had a sensational leader who used the outdoors to teach scouting values. He was deeply committed and was a true teacher.

Scouting after all, is a teaching environment. But outdoor skills are not the most important teachings. The real reason for teaching boys to light a fire alone in the wilderness is not to prepare for him to be lost someday, but to teach him self reliance and confidence.

Those are the lessons we truly take with us out of scouting and into the rest of our lives.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Well said, Ethan.