During a single-topic meeting of the Chilmark select board, members shared their responses to a formal report on an incident that occurred at a Chilmark summer camp between two white boys and a Black boy; the boys were ages 8 and 9.
On July 29, an incident was reported at a summer camp at the Chilmark Community Center (CCC) that involved two white boys placing a tent strap around a Black boy’s neck. A formal report was issued on Aug. 25 by the Chilmark Town Affairs Council (CTAC), the nonprofit entity that runs the summer camp.
After reviewing the incident report, which indicated no evidence of “overt racial motivation,” select board members read their responses during Wednesday’s meeting.
Board chair Jim Malkin said the summer program is not a town program, and receives no funding, management, or direction from the town, “however it is on town-owned land, and the town has an interest in the activities of the program.”
Because the members of the group that compiled the report were not named, Malkin said, he has no way of knowing if any persons of color were involved in the investigation or in its conclusion. “I would suggest that a group of white people, no matter how thoughtful, don’t have the lens or the experience to determine whether an incident is racist or not,” Malkin said.
He added that he is “personally surprised” that given the significant amount of time between when the event happened and when the report was issued, the only concrete step taken by the summer program was to create a subcommittee.
“I personally would like to have seen the summer program specifically outline planned training of staff to deal with bullying and racism, to address the lessons and learning specifically with the children involved, and essentially and importantly — to create an environment for the summer program where all children, especially Black children, can go to a facility in the town of Chilmark and feel safe,” Malkin said.
With a number of diversity and equity groups and programs on the Island who have been on the front lines of these issues, Malkin said, he is “disappointed” that some of these resources weren’t tapped by the CTAC sooner, including during the investigation.
He concluded that the finding in the report that there was no overt racial motivation doesn’t detract from the trauma inflicted on the young Black boy.
“The finding that the white boys didn’t mean this as a lynching or a race-based things doesn’t mean the incident wasn’t racially traumatic for the 8-year-old Black child. At the end of the day, we cannot have children in our town who are traumatised at events on town-owned land,” Malkin said.
Select board member Bill Rossi said he thinks the CTAC treated this event with the “utmost seriousness,” and that their report was well-written, although there were some important elements that were left out. “But I think they were left out because they couldn’t speak to a certain number of people for whatever reason,” Rossi said.
Additionally, Rossi said, he wanted the report to better provide an understanding of what the goals going forward are for the camp program, and for the CTAC overall.
“How would these findings be considered, moving into the next season? It’s an unfortunate incident, and we do need people to feel safe when they send their children to camp in the town of Chilmark,” Rossi said.
Select board member Warren Doty noted the lawn signs spread around town that say, “Only you and I can end racism,” and said he thinks the camp needs to commit to a program that lives up to that slogan. “What can we do to end racism in our town?” he asked.
Jeff Herman, president of the CTAC, commented on remarks made by the select board about the report.
He said the report reflects the CTAC’s attempts to speak with as many people as they were able to in order to understand the facts, and noted that although it may seem a small matter, the investigation was made more difficult by the fact that most (if not all) of the individuals who were involved were minors.
Both the victim and the two other boys were minors, along with the two staff members who were most immediately involved with the group the boys were a part of, according to Herman.
“We were not able to get the parents’ consent to speak with them, and there were other limitations on the amount of evidence and information we were able to gather,” Herman said.
He said the CTAC acknowledges the racial backdrop of the incident, and that “there were and remain some disturbing images that call up events in our nation’s past.”
“We also recognize that there are questions about supervision, bullying, and safety, which we all take extraordinarily seriously,” he continued.
Suellen Lazarus, a member of the summer camp committee, said there is already work being done to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the CTAC, starting with their mission statement. “It’s the CTAC’s priority to create an environment that welcomes children of diverse backgrounds, races, cultures, ethnicities, religious beliefs, and sexual orientations, and that all children feel safe and supported,” Lazarus said.
Going forward, CTAC will develop a code of conduct that all campers, counselors, and staff are expected to engage in positive, supportive interpersonal relationships that are inclusive and welcoming to people of all backgrounds.
The code will also detail repercussions for noncompliance, along with a plan to implement an incident report system for campers, parents, staff, and counselors who have concerns or who witness bad behavior. “It would be investigated within a very short period of time,” Lazarus said.
With the underlying issue of supervision at camp, Lazarus said the CTAC program has always used a “light touch” approach, but with this incident coming to light, “it’s clear that times have changed, and that there are some children that can thrive in the Community Center’s environment of this light touch, and there are others that don’t do as well.”
Lazarus also stressed the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion training for staff, counselors, and for the CTAC itself.
She added that more diversity of representation is needed on the CTAC, and within the camp staff.
“We as members of this committee are very aware that we are white and we are drafting this, and we need help. So we will seek outside advice, and we have reached out to some groups already. It’s important for us to engage in an inclusive process that recognizes we need more voices to develop a comprehensive policy, but we also need to make sure our organization reflects the diversity of the Island,” Lazarus said.
The summer camp committee expects to be able to deliver a report to the CTAC by the end of September regarding programming and policy commitments.