Why Summer Camp Isn't as Safe as You Think

Top-notch camp counselors are sought out for these specialty camps so that "the best" can teach kids how to be "the best." But just who are these camp counselors, and how qualified are they to be working with young kids?
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It was a hot Monday morning in July and he was dribbling a soccer ball when it happened. Twelve-year-old Joshua Thibodeau was at a soccer camp last month when he suddenly collapsed. Within 45 minutes, he was dead.

By all accounts Joshua Thibodeau's death was a tragic accident. Yes, it was hot, but he had just had a water break. Yes, the three coaches working at the camp, including one EMT, followed proper procedures. And, yes, little Joshua had undergone a medical exam within the past year clearing him to play soccer. With the autopsy results still pending it's useless to speculate on his cause of death (Sudden cardiac death syndrome? Dehydration? Seizure?). But it's useful to reflect on what parents can learn from this tragedy, especially as the fall sports season gears up.

Summer camps started in the United States in the 1880s, mainly for affluent boys. By the 1930s niche camps developed for girls, religious groups, and immigrants. These sleepaway and day camps focused on outdoor activities and a range of group activities and competition, like Color Wars.

While traditional summer camps still exist, in the twenty-first century it is specialty camps that have proliferated. Specialty camps focus on a specific activity -- like the soccer camp where Josh Thibodeau was playing. Middle- and upper-middle class parents opt to use the summer months to help their children develop concrete skills and credentials that will help them throughout the next year, and in the years leading up to the college admissions race.

Top-notch camp counselors are sought out for these specialty camps so that "the best" can teach kids how to be "the best." But just who are these camp counselors, and how qualified are they to be working with young kids? Unlike teachers, camp counselors are neither required to be certified to work with young children nor to be treated as experts in a given subject area (like soccer, tennis, dance, chess, etc.).

The ease with which someone could claim to be a qualified specialty camp counselor became clear to me when I attended a week-long soccer camp during the research process for my doctoral dissertation and book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. I met the owner of the "Northeastern States Soccer Camp" (name has been changed) at a State Soccer Expo. He asked if I would consider being a coach at his summer camp. I explained on multiple occasions that I had no soccer skills but that I could be a counselor, living with the kids in their dorm and supervising them. When I arrived at the camp I discovered that I was supposed to be in charge of training a group of participants -- whose parents paid nearly $700 for the week under the impression that their children would receive top-of-the-line coaching and training. I immediately protested. But the coaching staff that week was understaffed so the camp director continued to try to convince me to run drills. Again, I protested saying I had no soccer knowledge to run drills or give corrections. The director was frustrated with my unwillingness to serve as a "coach." After two days of feeling deeply uncomfortable I decided to leave the camp.

It is shockingly easy for individuals to go into business and exploit families simply by applying a veneer of professionalism, not just in the world of summer camps but also in the world of competitive children's after school activities. Parents invest a great deal of money in their children's participation, and many teachers, coaches, and camp owners are there with their hands out, ready to accept whatever people can give. Legal scholars, like Laura Rosenbury of Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, have written about how unregulated the space between school and family life is, using examples like the Boys Scouts. Competitive children's activities- and summer camps- certainly occupy this unregulated space as well, with potentially life-threatening consequences.

So what should parents think about when signing children up for fall classes, and summer camps in the future? Expertise and teaching experience (including formal teaching credentials), and safety. While it seems obvious that those convicted of crimes, especially any involving children, shouldn't be around children, this isn't always the case.

It may surprise you that not all states mandate background checks for coaches and counselors. If you live in a state that doesn't, know that many of the insurance companies who insure these activities do have strict guidelines. If a program is uninsured this should be a red flag about the legitimacy of the enterprise. We need to better inform parents about their rights and options, while also pushing states to better regulate these children's activities to protect the health and safety of the children who participate.

Even with these precautions, accidents will happen, as demonstrated by the death of Joshua Thibodeau. But we shouldn't risk putting children at risk by placing them in an unsafe learning environment -- whether it's a sweltering summer day, or a blustery winter one.

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is a Harvard sociologist and an expert on children's afterschool activities and competition.