In the summers of 2017 and 2018, the West Virginia 4-H camp program experienced multiple incidents where camps were locked down due to armed suspects in the area. In one incident, a man stole a truck and shot at a family’s home within a mile of a 4-H camp in session. In another incident, an armed suspect resurfaced near the camp facility area where he was ultimately captured.
While these incidents were frightening in and of themselves, the camps in proximity also had to contend with keeping their campers and staff safe and secure. Each camp went into lockdown. The camp directors leaned on their risk management plans as well as their local officials and state supervisors for support and direction. Drawing on these first-hand experiences, following are lessons learned from camp professionals. No one wants to experience this type of situation, especially when youth are involved. Nevertheless, knowing that mass shootings and random acts of violence do occur, these lessons aim to raise awareness among camp professionals about the need to consider fugitive situations in camp planning, staff training, and risk management plans.
Lesson 1: Preparation
With each fugitive situation previously described, the camp director had a preestablished risk management plan in place. While risk management plans are common practice nowadays, occurrences of violent crime and mass shootings only serve to emphasize the critical nature of a well-thought-out plan. Furthermore, it stresses the need for camp directors to review their camp’s risk management plan annually, be familiar with it, and have ample copies available at camp. Doing so gives camp directors peace of mind knowing their plans build in notification to camp by local officials as well as a fully vetted, trained staff who are familiar with the overall risk management plan.
Lesson 2: Staff Training
Staff training is central to any camp program. While camps vary in size and scope, staff training provides the time and space to review not only the risk management plan, but also the camp rules, policies, expectations, and schedule. In the context of a fugitive situation, it serves to place additional emphasis on key aspects of staff training:
- Staff need to find the right balance between supervision (being aware of their surroundings) and interacting with youth as caring role models. Staff should be familiar with both other staff and the youth at camp so they can spot strangers or individuals who should not be on the premises.
- The camp visitor policy should be emphasized, alerting staff to the importance of the visitor sign-in and sign-out procedure. This policy may also involve name tags or other identification to alert staff and campers that visitors are just visiting for a specified period of time.
- Staff and campers should also be familiar with and have practiced for emergency situations. While weather and fire emergencies are common drills practiced at the outset of camp programs, active shooter and intruder drills should be part of the camp schedule. Risk is mitigated when campers and staff know what to do and where to go in an emergency.
- Camper attendance at classes, assemblies, and events is a common expectation at camp. Staff need to remain vigilant in taking attendance on the first day through the last day of camp to ensure all campers are accounted for. It is also important that staff and campers are aware of camp facilities, boundaries, and landmarks. Being familiar with locations and structures is a foundation for successful training and implementation of risk management plans.
Lesson 3: Local and State Relations
Emergency action plans are generally very comprehensive. Yet every situation is unique, presenting issues and challenges that may not be addressed in the emergency action plan. This is especially true for fugitive situations. Therefore, prior contact and good relationships with the emergency personnel at the local level provide needed expertise for emergency action plans to not only be efficiently implemented, but also adjusted if the plan does not account for all scenarios.
Furthermore, relationships with state-level administration allow for camp directors to receive professional and emotional support. Lockdown and fugitive situations are tense and stressful, with campers, parents, staff, and more vying for answers from the camp director. Camp professionals should have strong communication and support plans in place with their administrative boards, supervisors, or other camp leadership as a part of their risk management plans.
Lesson 4: The Essentials of Good Communication
A well-developed communication plan is essential for any camp, especially in an emergency. Procedures should be established to effectively guide communication with local emergency personnel, camp staff, parents, the community, and, most importantly, campers.
Securing a direct phone number with a local law enforcement officer is critical, as is making sure they have access to your direct number as well. This exchange of information is essential given the remote nature and limited communication infrastructure of many camp facilities. Camp professionals must remember that a camp facility is often just one of many sites in a fugitive situation, as neighborhoods, homes, businesses, etc. are often part of the area too. Therefore, camp directors must make themselves accessible and establish a plan for staying in contact with the appropriate local officials.
During camp staff training, establish a plan for effective staff communication within camp. Text messaging or radios can be an effective way to inform staff of significant developments. Caution staff to limit personal communications and social media posts from camp, especially during times of crisis. In fact, communications to and from the camp should be channeled through one predetermined point of contact. Develop a standard message that is easily repeated for staff to use with campers and outside contacts. Taking these steps will help eliminate the potential for confusion and misunderstanding.
When not in a time of crisis, a daily social media post regarding camp is an excellent method for reassuring parents of their children’s safety. Robocalls or text messages allow the camp director to keep parents informed. Always make a contact number available for parents. During a crisis, this number may need to be off-site. Try to get ahead of unofficial communications from camp. Today, information can be shared instantaneously, so be proactive in reassuring parents and the community that you have the situation under control and that camper safety is always the priority.
Communicating with campers is the most critical and challenging aspect in a fugitive situation. Camp is supposed to be time away from the realities of the world. However, one cannot ignore the increase of public acts of violence and criminal activity even in rural communities. Active shooter and intruder drills help ensure campers know what to do in a fugitive situation.
Inform campers only about what they need to know, and do not lie or intentionally mislead them. Young people are far smarter and more sophisticated than we give them credit for at times. They recognize when information is not truthful and will question that information. For example, say, “An incident has occurred in the area, and until we find out more information, we are taking caution and staying inside.” Answer camper questions as honestly and openly as possible and in a way that is consistent with your communication plan. Above all, stay calm. The camp director’s behavior and delivery of information will set the tone for the situation. Campers will follow their lead on how they should react.
Lesson 5: Creating a Safe but “Normal” Environment
In the real-life situations described in the opening section, youth continued with normal activities. Keeping youths physically and emotionally safe should take priority in challenging situations. If possible, move programming and activities inside to the safest location. Until the situation is understood, keep campers together in large groups with lots of staff present so communication and movement are easily maintained. As each situation is assessed and better understood, campers may be divided into smaller groups to continue with activities.
Creating these safe “normal” environments is central in these types of situations. Classes and activities can even be extended to help keep children engaged. Plan for additional activities — dancing, games, inexpensive crafts, storytelling, etc. — well before camp starts for just such unexpected situations. Fugitive situations are a reminder about the importance of being flexible, patient, and being able to think on one’s feet to maintain a safe but “normal” environment. In the end, no matter how many incidents one has experienced while working with children, or how much preparation and planning one has done for an emergency, each and every situation is different. Camp directors and staff must work together to make decisions that are in their campers’ best interest to keep them emotionally and physically safe.
Be Prepared for a Good Outcome
Camp is a cherished summer tradition for youth across the country. It teaches life skills such as teamwork, communication, leadership, critical thinking, and problem-solving, just to name a few (American Camp Association, 2018). While camp provides an atmosphere for personal growth and new friendships, it is not without risk from outside forces. During those rare times of potential threat to camp by an armed or otherwise dangerous intruder, being prepared is paramount. In a 2018 Camping Magazine article, Loughlin and Russel wrote:
A saying attributed to the United States Navy Seals states that “under pressure, we do not rise to the occasion, we sink to the level of our training.” During preparedness planning, your staff will develop response capabilities that will enable them to fall back on their training… . The response action you choose will be a function of the training you received.
West Virginia University Extension faculty faced real-life camp situations where fugitives had the potential to do harm. Thankfully, effective training and communication proved key ingredients that led to positive outcomes in each situation. Proper planning and preparation will ensure other camps can achieve the same results should the need arise.
B rent Clark is the state 4-H program leader in West Virginia. He currently supports county and state-based camping experiences in an administrative role. He has been a part of camp programs as a youth participant, volunteer, and professional for close to 30 years.
Zona Hutson is a WVU 4-H Extension agent in Doddridge County. Zona has provided more than 25 years of leadership to camp programs on the local and state level.
Brenda Pruett is a WVU 4-H Extension agent in Mercer County. She has provided leadership to 4-H camp programs on the local and state level for more than 30 years. She also spent 10 years as a camper as well as five as a summer camp resource person.
Julie Tritz is a 4-H Extension agent in Wayne County and an assistant director of the West Virginia 4-H Program. She has served as a camp director for three-week-long camps in Wayne County for the past 10 years.
Autumn Starcher previously served as WVU 4-H Extension agent in Cabell County. She supported camps in a professional role for three years and previously in youth participant and volunteer roles.