Demerit Badge

Is Boy Scouts of America doing enough to keep kids safe?

MY TEN-YEAR-OLD SON, Austin, likes to hike, camp, and climb. He toddled across the Alaskan tundra at age two, hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon at four, and floated the Green River at six. In other words, he's a perfect candidate for the Boy Scouts of America. In some corners of the country it would be considered unpatriotic not to sign him up. But here's the truth: I'd rather see Austin pierce his tongue than earn a merit badge.

My distrust of the Scouts reached a tipping point in March, when 12-year-old Michael Auberry, from Greensboro, North Carolina's Troop 230, disappeared while on a camping trip in the Blue Ridge Parkway. Fortunately, after a four-day search, Auberry was found alive and well. He'd wandered away from camp, it was later reported, and gotten lost.

I was relieved, of course, that Auberry emerged unhurt. But then I got angry. What irked me wasn't the incident itself but the way Scout leaders reacted. I had followed the Auberry story on the Associated Press news wire, reading regional and national coverage of the search. Instead of apologies—a kid had been lost, after all—what I saw was a round of collective back-patting by Scout leaders across the country who proudly recounted how the wayward boy had used his Scout-taught survival skills. "Preparing kids—that's our motto. That's what we do," Ely Brewer, of the Mid-Iowa Council of Boy Scouts, told Des Moines TV station KCCI. Fine. Auberry knew how to make a bed out of leaves. But here's a thought: How about making sure he doesn't wander off in the first place?

Auberry's epic actually had a much brighter ending than at least a dozen incidents over the past decade in which Scouts have died or nearly died. Most infamously, in 2005, two Scouts and five leaders were killed in two separate lightning incidents and one power-line mishap. In unrelated BSA accidents that same summer, Chase Hathenbruck, 15, drowned in New Mexico's Animas River, and Luke Sanburg, 13, drowned in the Yellowstone. The year before, Kristoffer Jones, 14, died when he fell 1,000 feet from a sheer cliff while hiking in Utah's Zion National Park. But even these tragedies wouldn't be so tragic if not for the hubris that still managed to pervade the Boy Scout leadership. In March 2006, nine Scouts and three leaders were backpacking in Arizona's Superstition Mountains when they became stranded by a snowstorm. Unprepared for the conditions, they had to be rescued by helicopter. "The boys proved themselves to be men," leader David Perkins told Phoenix TV stations. Or the leaders proved themselves to be inexperienced: A severe winter storm had been forecast days before. I live in Flagstaff, Arizona, and had planned a trek in the Superstitions that same weekend, but I postponed it after a routine weather check. The typical response from Scout leaders to all of the above? Freak accidents.

Tell that to the parents who've sued the Scouts in recent years. One case concerns Matthew Tresca, 16, who was killed in August 2002 by lightning at a Pennsylvania Scout camp. Even though a severe thunderstorm warning was in effect for the area and lightning was visible in the sky, Tresca and other boys were sent by Scout leaders from the safety of the dining hall to their tents, where Tresca died after a bolt struck a metal tent spike. In 2004, in testimony for a lawsuit brought by Tresca's parents against the BSA in New Jersey Superior Court, meteorologist Ronald Holle, a lightning expert formerly with the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, concluded, "The national and local levels of the Boy Scouts of America failed completely to take into account any recent or current information on the impacts of lightning. The management of the risk of lightning was extraordinarily poor and at an extremely low level of understanding compared to similar organizations. … If planning had been emphasized at the national level, and local individuals had used this information correctly, the completely preventable death of Matthew Tresca would have been avoided." The BSA reached an undisclosed settlement with the Trescas, part of which prohibited the family from talking to the media.

THEN THERE'S THE BOY Scouts' mission itself, which is "to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices" (read the complete text at scouting.org), making no mention of wilderness skills. "We emphasize outdoor activities, safety, and stewardship, but do not consider ourselves an outdoor or survival training program," says BSA associate director of marketing and communications Eric Moore. That would make more sense if troops spent as much time playing kickball as camping.

"Unfortunately, many Scout leaders do not possess the level of decision-making skills that is required in the outdoors," says Ken Phillips, chief of emergency services for Grand Canyon National Park, who has been involved in numerous backcountry rescues of Scout troops during his 23 years there. "Many of the leaders of these trips are not used to the wilderness environment. The kids don't make bad decisions; the leaders do."

I can hear the protests, so let me answer: Yes, with more than three million Scouts and a million volunteer leaders in the United States, it's inevitable that accidents will happen. And competent, even excellent, Scout leaders with years of experience and training in wilderness first aid do exist. Plus the BSA mobilizes a vast number of volunteer leaders who sincerely want to help kids. But even kindergartners are taught to learn from mistakes. The BSA, meanwhile, won't divulge accident data and declined to share any statistics for this story. And they've let at least one opportunity to learn from other wilderness-education organizations wither on the vine. Drew Leemon, risk-management director for the National Outdoor Leadership School, says the BSA joined the committee for the annual Wilderness Risk Management Conference from 1997 to 2001, but declined to share accident data with the group. "The Boy Scouts expose so many kids to the outdoors, it's phenomenal," says Leemon. "We wanted the Boy Scouts to be more involved. We hoped their participation would rally the troops and lead to Scout leaders attending the conference. But it didn't happen in any great numbers."

Of course, the BSA national office encourages wilderness-safety and first-aid training for Scout leaders. But participation is completely voluntary. According to BSA director of camping and conservation Frank Reigelman, the group's primary means of educating troop leaders is through the Boy Scouts' Fieldbook and other BSA literature. "We provide various publications and planning tools to help volunteers with trip planning. The material is out there if they choose to use it," says Reigelman, who emphasizes that it's hard to enforce requirements in a volunteer organization with 47,000 troops across the country. That argument would be more convincing if they didn't manage to exclude gays and atheists from all BSA chapters.

I may rue the day I wished a tongue-piercing on my only son. The mere thought makes me cringe. But at least I know he won't need to be rescued.

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