Why camp staff need sexual abuse prevention training

#MeToo has shattered the silence in so many ways, but it is up to us to make sure that the broken fantasy of safety is followed up with protocol that can be implemented for effective change.

Summer camp [Illustrative] (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Summer camp [Illustrative]
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
Parents zip up the duffel bags, give hugs, and wave goodbye. After weeks of preparing, thousands of parents send their kids off to spend a month or two under the supervision of camp staff. Parents trust that their children are safe in their Jewish camp, but the reality is that with increasing cases of childhood sexual abuse at summer camps being reported, it’s time to take a serious look at what’s going wrong, and how abuse can be prevented.
Even the most tight-knit communities have been rocked by the wave of childhood sexual abuse exposure. Recently, the #MeToo movement opened the door to a new level of discussion around consent and body respect. The dawn of a new sexual era is upon us, and the Jewish community has been faced with the daunting task of implementing a new standard of sexual safety in a more traditional culture.
However, by now we all know too well that no community is safe from the risks of sexual abuse. Abusers have been exposed in every single stream of Judaism. Now that the shock and denial have largely been overturned – with the brave voices of so many abuse survivors and with developing projects rallying to support them – the question has surfaced: What do we do now?
Just last week, Josefin Dolsten published an article in the Times of Israel about how the #MeToo movement has encouraged Jewish summer camps to reevaluate the emphasis that is put on relationships and sexuality through activities and “camp culture.” The article addresses the well-known “hookup culture” of sexual exploration’ and how camps are now less inclined to promote activities like dances and unsupervised co-ed situations – in order to move away from the old model, where Jewish kids often came to camp looking for a relationship or sexual experiences. The article discussed how the staff training before camp can help shape the focus for the summer’s activities, and kids’ perceptions of gender roles and sexuality.
Similarly, a $100,000 campaign launched last year by the Foundation for Jewish Camps – which boasts a membership of 300 Jewish summer camps – aims to promote body safety. This initiative proves that Jewish parents and educators are clearly willing to invest in protecting children from sexual abuse. The outline for the plan specifies discussing the delicate topics of consent, sexuality and gender discrimination in camp staff training. It’s an incredible movement to open dialogue and awareness around sexuality in camp – an environment that is often known for its casual boundaries.
THESE RESPONSES to #MeToo are important and certainly valuable for staff and campers alike. However, with respect and appreciation for these initiatives, it is important to make sure that we aren’t skipping a step. Changing the culture around consent and sex among campers must come after the boundaries between staff and campers have been clearly established and enforced.
Camps are known for being laid back and casual. This can be really confusing for young staff and campers alike. Children at camp are vulnerable. This reality demands a sexual abuse protocol that is clear, concise and definitive. It is imperative for Jewish camps to train their staff members through programming based on best practice, so that regardless of the camp, the counselor or the culture, the boundaries for interactions between and among staff members and campers is 100% clear and standardized.
ASAP’s Camp Safety Program has been providing abuse prevention training and guidelines in an innovative, online and culturally sensitive format for the past few years; thousands have already been certified. Staff members are given clear guidelines for what is okay and what is not okay – guidelines that when enforced, prevent crossed boundaries and abuse.
It’s time for the Jewish community to unite behind the goal of camp safety, and to recognize that staff members need clear rules, which mean less gray area about what is appropriate and what is not. It means that all staff members know how to prevent crossed boundaries and sexual abuse, and what to do when they’ve seen or heard about something that is against the rules.
Clear boundaries mean that relationship dynamics between staff and campers are subject to standardized protocol and to transparency. #MeToo has shattered the silence in so many ways, but it is up to us to make sure that the broken fantasy of safety is followed up with protocol that can be implemented for effective change.
ASAP staff training for camp safety is presented through online videos and interactive materials that are proven to be clear and, most importantly, effective. Staff members go into the summer already equipped with information and clear boundaries.
Summer is around the corner. Staff members are being hired. It’s time for standardized childhood sexual abuse prevention to be a mandatory part of camp staff trainings. Our children’s safety is depending on it.
The writer, holds an MSW and is a program manager in the Development Department of Yedidut Toronto.