Concern was raised in a couple of recent Scouting leadership meetings I attended because BSA units along the Wasatch Front comprise a disproportionately high number of the program’s injuries, health and safety incidents, and other liability related issues. More specifically, such events occur at a statistically significantly high rate in BSA units sponsored by the LDS Church, we were told. Although a few numbers were quoted and concepts were orally presented, I wasn’t able to get specific data.
I noted in my last post that there has been a decades-long push to reduce risk and liability by the BSA. Adventure is an important element of the Scouting program, but safety has become an increasingly important issue. Sometimes these two factors can be at odds with each other. There is a constant struggle to maximize adventure while implementing acceptable safety standards — standards that have become increasingly restrictive throughout society.
It is wise to consider causes when one identifiable group has more problems with safety than other groups. I think that when it comes to LDS sponsored BSA units the main answer is quite simple. It goes hand-in-hand with my Oct. 2007 post on mediocre LDS Scouting.
It can be boiled down to this: Outside of the LDS Church, Scouting is usually an optional program, while it is mandatory in the LDS Church (at least in the USA). I am not saying that there is necessarily anything wrong with the LDS Church’s policy; I am merely saying that there are consequences attached to that policy.
In the USA and in certain other areas of the world, the Scouting program is considered the activity arm that corresponds to the LDS Church’s spiritual programs for boys ages 8 through 18. In this respect, Scouting is adopted as an official part of the church’s program.
But the LDS Church reserves the right to run the program the way it wishes. The church also pulls a lot of weight in determining official BSA policies, since it sponsors more youth and far more units than any other single sponsor (see Wikipedia chart), representing about 17% of all traditional BSA members. (One of the reasons the LDS Church has never sponsored GSA units is that the GSA’s founding principles limit the influence of organizations like the church in determining and carrying out policies.)
Where BSA involvement is optional, those that choose to become involved are usually expected to demonstrate a relatively high level of commitment to the program. Where boys are enrolled in the program simply as a coincidence of their involvement in a sponsoring organization, less dedication to the BSA program is natural.
This difference is reflected in everything, including uniforming, attendance, Scouting method, camping, leadership, adherence to safety principles, etc. The LDS Church actually does a pretty good job at advancement. LDS youth achieve advancement recognition at a much higher rate than the national average. But frankly, LDS units do a pitiful job when it comes to the Scouting method. The church does better at getting boys through Scouting than having Scouting go through the boys. In many cases, Scouts is something the boys and leaders do rather than something they are or are becoming.
Scouting’s founder, Lord Robert Baden-Powell taught that advancement and awards are merely incident to following and implementing the methods of Scouting. These methods include adherence to the patrol method, leadership development, outdoor skills, internalization of Scouting ideals and principles, uniforming, and recognition. LDS sponsored units sometimes do well at some of these things, but it is rare to find an LDS unit that does a good job of implementing all of the Scouting methods.
Default membership in the BSA produces a different kind of Scouting leader on average than does optional membership. Sometimes you have LDS ward bishoprics that believe in a strong Scouting program. More often you’ve got busy ward leaders that are only too happy to get someone — anyone — to accept a scoutmaster, adviser, or assistant position, regardless of the quality of the program. They have a limited pool of men to choose from and they also need dedicated individuals in many other ward (and stake) positions.
Few newly called LDS Scouting leaders bother to get much training in the program, even when training is broadly available. Most consider such training yet another drain on their precious time. Their church leaders rarely require it of them, since they are just happy to have adults that will show up at weekly activity nights most of the time. Many LDS Scouting leaders know nothing about BSA safety policies. Many that know about the policies don’t care about them. The rules simply seem too onerous.
Most adult Scouting leaders in LDS sponsored units look at the job primarily as a church calling that happens to have some kind of incidental affiliation with the BSA. Most of the BSA side of the calling seems optional. This is especially true for leaders of boys ages 14 and older, where the BSA relationship tends to become distant and informal. (Actually sponsorship of Venturing crews is optional, as long as “a more effective activity program functions.”)
Turnover among LDS Scouting leaders is high. Part of the reason for this is the lack of a truly functional unit committee that would normally handle many of the tasks that fall to the already harried unit leader. If I were permitted to apply only a single word to the general state of BSA unit committees in LDS sponsored units, I would have a hard time choosing between nonexistent and dysfunctional. Often when a committee exists it is worse than useless to the point that the unit leader ends up doing it all himself anyway.
When turnover of adult leaders is high and training of adult leaders is low, it naturally follows that adherence to safety standards is likewise low. Violations of longstanding basic safety rules are common. The policies are either unknown or disregarded.
A friend told me of his brother having lunch with an old friend he hadn’t seen for years. This old friend explained how a young man in his LDS ward had been killed on a Scouting activity of which the man had been in charge. The activity had violated several BSA safety principles. Even five years later the man was still dealing with the social, financial, mental, and spiritual consequences of this tragedy. To top it off, he knew that it would have been avoided had they followed the rules. Most get away with safety breaches. Some do not. Those are reflected in a higher rate of safety and liability problems.
As I said, there is not necessarily anything wrong with LDS Church’s policy of mandatory registration with the BSA. But there are consequences relative to the policy. Every course of action involves tradeoffs. I can only assume that it is judged that the value of having a general program with broader involvement exceeds the value of developing a more exclusive higher quality program or of scrapping BSA ties altogether.
LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson has repeatedly emphasized the greater strategic importance of supporting character building organizations with strong moral values. A few years ago he said, “Much has been said in the media of late regarding Scouting. Let me affirm that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter‑day Saints has not diminished in any way its support of the Scouting movement. . . .” A more complete (2007) guide to the church’s policies regarding Scouting can be found at this link.
As long as the LDS Church continues to sponsor BSA units with mandatory registration of the church’s boys, I suspect that adherence to BSA policies and rules by those units in general will continue to be rather casual. This naturally means that LDS Church sponsored BSA units will continue to experience a higher than average rate of safety and liability problems. It’s a tradeoff that simply can’t be avoided.
In essence, comparing safety outcomes of a group of those mandatorily involved in Scouting against those that are optionally involved is measuring apples to oranges. There are valid reasons for the differences in such rates. If the church’s safety rate is considered too high, there are things that could be done to reduce it somewhat. (Although draconian policies would likely produce other worse problems.) But without restructuring the basic nature of the contract of involvement, a higher level of safety problems is inescapable.