Camp Safety Basics: Tips for Preventing and Controlling Violence at Camp

by Carol Hanover

The recent attention given to school and workplace violence has fueled a major concern about safety in society. While camp directors make every effort to prevent violent incidents, camp is not immune from violence. Camp administrators, directors, and staff must understand the risk of violence and learn to how to manage it.

For example, what would you do if a camper tried to sneak a gun into camp or what if a camper told you about a peer who threatened him if he spoke of a certain incident? The risk management process is critical in helping you prepare for such scenarios. By practicing sound risk management on a daily basis, you can reduce and eliminate potential accidents and injuries. Therefore, to make your camp safer, camp staff must understand what behaviors may lead to violence and the types of prevention programs that are effective.

What Is Camp Violence?

Most people think violence is simply a physical assault. However, camp violence is a much larger problem. It is an act in which a person is abused, threatened, intimidated, or assaulted while at camp. This can include campers, staff, and visitors. Camp violence includes, but is not limited to:

  • threatening behavior - shaking fists, destroying property, or throwing objects.
  • verbal or written threats - any expression of an intent to cause harm.
  • harassment - any behavior that demeans, embarrasses, humiliates, annoys,
    alarms, or verbally abuses a person and that is known or would be expected to be unwelcome.
  • verbal abuse - swearing, insults, or condescending language.
  • physical attacks - hitting, shoving, pushing, or kicking.
  • other more serious types of potential violence - pranks, arguments, vandalism,
    sabotage, theft, rape, arson, murder, and property damage.

Who Is Responsible for Prevention and Control?

Violence affects everyone at camp. Therefore, everyone is responsible for preventing and controlling violence at camp. Parents, campers, staff, administrators, and visitors need to work together and be involved in the prevention and control program in order for it to be most effective. Know the laws in your state and reach out to local authorities/agencies for assistance.

What can be done to prevent/control camp violence?

The most critical component to any risk management program is management commitment. Your commitment is best communicated in formal policy statements. Here is a brief outline of some steps to take:

  • Develop a formal policy statement(s) including a "zero tolerance" policy for illegal possession of weapons, alcohol, or drugs.
  • Define what you mean by camp violence in precise, clear language.
  • Establish a system for documenting violent incidents at camp.
  • Establish a violence assessment team to conduct formal investigations of incidents reported.
  • Create a violence prevention/response plan. This plan must be consistent with federal, state, and local laws. (Everyone should know what to do in the event of an emergency.)
  • Develop procedures and responsibilities for immediate violent crisis at camp.
  • Develop written rules of conduct applied in a nondiscriminatory manner.
  • Identify the early warning signs of potentially violent behaviors and procedures for identifying children who exhibit these signs (see below).
  • Precisely state the consequences of violence at camp. (Be sure consequences are commensurate with the offense.)
  • Encourage reporting of all violent incidents.
  • Outline procedures for investigating and resolving complaints.
  • Communicate all policies and procedures to campers, staff, and parents.
  • Train all staff and administrators in the violence prevention and response plan.
    This training should include, but not be limited to, effective prevention plans, 
    intervention strategies, and a crisis-intervention plan.
  • Document, document, document.

The Warning Signs of Violence

Beyond taking violence prevention and control measures at your camp, you should also learn to detect early warning signs of potentially violent behaviors. Keep in mind that it is important to use the signs responsibly and avoid inappropriately labeling a person because he exhibits possible warning signs.

Warning signs may or may not indicate a serious problem, and only trained professionals should make diagnoses in consultation with the child's parent or guardian. However, recognizing early warning signs of violence does allow camp staff to act responsibly by getting help for the child before a problem escalates. Administrators should ensure that these signs are used only for identification and referral purposes. Following are only a few warning signs of violent behavior (they are presented in no particular order):

  • social withdrawal
  • excessive feelings of isolation or being alone
  • excessive feelings of rejection
  • feelings of being picked on or persecuted
  • no camp interest or poor camp involvement
  • being a victim of violence
  • expression of violence in writings and drawings
  • uncontrolled anger
  • patterns of impulsive and chronic hitting, intimidating, and bullying behaviors
  • history of discipline problems
  • affiliation with gangs
  • serious threats of violence
  • past history of violent or aggressive behavior
  • drug use or alcohol

No single warning sign can predict that a violent act will occur. Rather, imminent warning signs usually are present as a sequence of overt, serious, hostile behaviors or threats directed at campers, staff, or other individuals. Imminent warning signs may include:

  • serious physical fighting with peers or staff
  • severe destruction of property
  • severe rage for seemingly minor reasons
  • detailed threats of lethal violence
  • possession and/or use of firearms and other weapons
  • other self-injurious behaviors or threats of suicide

When warning signs indicate that danger is imminent, safety must always be the first and foremost consideration. Action must be taken immediately. Immediate intervention by camp authorities and possibly law enforcement officers must be implemented.

Commit to Daily Risk Management

Crises involving sudden violence at camp, at school, or in the workplace are traumatic in large measure because they are rare and unexpected. Becoming proactive, not reactive in the prevention of camp violence, will assist you in managing the risk of violence. Remember, camp safety is everyone's job and responsibility. Administrators, parents, campers, and staff all must commit to daily risk management.

Related Topics
How Do I Know if My Camp Is at Risk for Violence
Accidents and How They Impact Camp
Tips for Creating a Safe Camp

Carol Hanover, ARM, PHM, is the owner of Mondani Hanover & Associates LLC, located in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Contact her via or call 860-395-4765.

This article is offered for information purposes only and is not intended to be all-inclusive or to address the hazards or risks faced by each member/subscriber specifically.

ACA's Bookstore also offers books and other reference materials to aid in creating a safe camp environment.

Originally published in the 2000 May/June of Camping Magazine.