Family responds to Chilmark camp report

Attorney says tent strap incident was ‘reminiscent of a lynching’

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The family of a Black child at the center of an incident at the Chilmark Community Center camp is speaking out. -Rich Saltzberg

The civil rights attorney for the family of a 9-year-old Black boy at the center of a July 29 incident at Chilmark Community Center camp calls the attack reminiscent of a lynching.

Sophia Hall, supervising attorney for Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights, was responding to the release of a six-page report by the Chilmark Town Affairs Committee, which oversees the camp. That report concludes there was no evidence of “overt racism” in the incident where two white boys, 8 and 9, put a tent strap around the neck of the Black boy.

“It’s impossible to ignore that the victim was one of few children of color, in a town that is predominantly white, and staff that’s predominantly white,” Hall told The Times. “The attack itself is reminiscent of lynching, even if they don’t know what it means.”

The family statement points out that even the camp’s report indicates this incident was not the first warning sign of other bullying incidents by the same white campers. “In addition to what is disclosed in the report, the family of the Black child also reported another bullying incident by the white camper, referred to as ‘Camper Z,’ that occurred only one week prior to the attack, and where he referred to the Black child as a ‘stinky rat,’ as well as kicked and pushed him,” a statement released on behalf of the family by Hall states.

Hall told The Times the family had hoped to have a meeting with the other families involved, but that never materialized. They disagree with the committee’s finding that race was not a factor. “There is often a fine line between bullying and discrimination, particularly at this age,” Hall said. “They are really intertwined, and treating them as separate was not helpful in this case, and should not be a blueprint for how the camp operates moving forward.” 

In the statement and during a phone interview, Hall said that the family is calling upon the Martha’s Vineyard camp to enact a full range of meaningful reforms. “Despite the release of the report, it’s concerning to the family that there appear to be quite a few holes in terms of procedure, protocol, and training in place — or the lack thereof — to avoid this incident for their child,” Hall told The Times. “There were concerns that they had to wait 30 days after this traumatic event to get any in-depth information from the center on how this transpired, and why it transpired.”

Hall said that delay resulted in a missed opportunity. “It was really important to them to be able to sit down with other families and understand how this came to pass,” she said. “They were hoping for a restorative justice circle that would allow some sort of silver lining or level of understanding.”

The family would like this incident to become a catalyst for change to establish protocols for anti-bullying and anti-harassment, she said. 

“This is a really unfortunate event. This was really a disturbing attack. And from my client’s perspective, they didn’t think they’d ever have to encounter something like this,” Hall said. As a civil rights attorney, Hall has seen many cases of discrimination. “An incident involving children so young is rare, and it adds to the thoughts for the need of systemic changes,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that these families couldn’t sit down and talk about these incidents and how there could be improvement for everyone.”

As for comments made by the father of one of the white boys to The Times that race was not a factor, Hall said that rather than point fingers, it would have been more productive to have the families sit down and move forward. “That’s all my clients ever wanted,” she said.

The family’s statement goes on to suggest that external experts should be brought in to advise the center in developing new protocols. Additionally, the center should think critically about how to better diversify staff, counselors and campers, according to the statement.

“It cannot be ignored that our child was one of the few children of color at this camp,” said the victim’s mother in the statement. “No parent should have to receive a call telling them that their child was attacked with a strap tied around his neck. Our child’s traumatic experience should cause the Chilmark community to take a close look at the need for reforms with real teeth.”

22 COMMENTS

  1. No child or adult should ever be treated so horribly in a so called civilized society. That poor child will never forget how he was abused at a summer camp for children no less I am appalled.

  2. So the lawyer is saying that even though the kids had no idea what a lynching is or that it would be considered a racist act, they are still responsible for a racist act?? Also, since when is ” a stinky rat” considered a racial slur? This nonsense needs to end. Nothing indicates there was any racial intent between these kids yet the grownups can’t let it go.

    • So what you are saying John is that in today’s charged climate these young boys know nothing about race, hostility toward those not white, violence perpetrated toward people of color, lynchings (yes, they are happening still). I’m not buying it and it is hard for me to believe any thoughtful person would believe that today’s youth isn’t exposed to our current (violent) society. The sad part is to have people try to sweep this under the rug and make light of it and avoid acknowledging that this sort of thing happens all too frequently in today’s climate (yes, even here on MV). MV is not immune to what is wrong with the US when it comes to issues of race and justice.

  3. John Axel why on earth are you defending these serial bullies? The question in my mind is why wasn’t the kid thrown out of the camp after the first incident of kicking, pushing and abuse. Counsellors should be trained and empowered to act in such circumstances. Camp is supposed to be fun, not a place to be harassed and hurt.

  4. Let’s look at how this incident would have been handled if race was not an issue. Obviously bullying by nine year olds is reprehensible and needs to have remedial action taken. The question should be whether the Community Center had effective polices in place to avoid bullying and was their response appropriate when bullying was claimed.

  5. When I was in second grade, I made up a poem that ended with “the teacher is big and fat just like a rat”. Thank goodness she was a white teacher, otherwise I would have been labeled a racist and forced to participate in a restorative justice circle.

  6. The child who pushed, shoved and called the other child a “stinky rat” should have been asked to leave camp immediately — This bullying behavior should be unacceptable at any well-run camp.

    • An 8 0r 9 year old calling another kid a stinky rat is cause for dismissal from camp?? How silly is that. If our kids can’t take being called a stinky rat our society is truly endangered.

      • The selective reading and responding here is a joke. Ignoring blatant facts doesn’t make them go away.

        He didn’t JUST call the other boy that name. He also attacked him physically. Yes, those THREE actions — kicking, shoving, and insulting — warrant throwing out the bully. Otherwise, it could lead to something more serious like PRECISELY what it DID lead to.

        Try looking at the whole picture instead of what you consider to be low-hanging fruit for rebuttal. No one is falling for this blinders-on tactic. Violence is violence and it warrants action. The boy was targeted more than once.

    • Hi Martha,

      Most racism in our society at this point is implicit or systemic, not explicit/over. Cops don’t say the N word when they arrest you for driving while being black, but they still arrest you. The bank doesn’t say “sorry, no black people” when they deny your loan on grounds of insufficient assets, it just so happens that black people in this country have vastly less resources, especially intergenerational wealth. And good luck getting into that exclusive Connecticut country club. So yeah, overt racism is a thing, but so is covert racism. Both are real, observable phenomenae.

          • Jim– let’s just imagine that you live in North Korea, and you have never been anywhere else.
            You would likely think that NK was the best country in the world, and the “great leader ” really cared about you.
            If you grew up in Afghanistan in the areas the Taliban controlled, you would likely think that women should wear burkas and you would be offended if a woman got on a bus with you. For sure, you would never let a woman you did not know get into the back seat of a taxi with you.
            That’s how the environment someone grew up in plays into all situations ..

        • Dondondon, I understand that. I also know about being a product of your environment. My question to Don Edgar is about his reply to my reply about whether these are island kids, off island kids or a mixture. Is he saying there are no racist on MV so these must be off island kids? Or is it the opposite?Again, what is he really trying to ask? Oh, I also knew when I reread my reply, that it didn’t really lay out the point very well, you would most likely be the one who felt you needed explain it to me. Thanks for not letting me down…

  7. My parents never uttered a word against black people but on some occasions, my father’s actions conveyed a message to me that blacks were inherently inferior. Two separate incidents: as a teenager, an older sister had a friend with dark skin and brought her to our house one evening before they were to meet up with more friends in town and I remember my dad recoiling in shock when he saw her. And again years later when I was in high school, a black family had moved to our town and their daughter was my age so I invited her to my house one day after school. She got the same reaction. Again, no words; just actions from my father who was powerful in my eyes. As a kid growing up in an all white neighborhood, it was first pointed out to me by a new white kid who moved to our town. He was two years older than I and he said to me one summer day, ‘there are no black families in this town and it’s deliberate’. I’d never thought about it nor did we ever discuss this at home or in my eight years at a parochial school. I remember our tv evening news came from the NYC networks and not one night’s report was without a story of a black male criminal and it was then that I realized my own bias and fear. I was about 10 or 11 so please don’t tell me that all these years later with the proliferation of media delivered minute by minute through our digital devices that messages aren’t getting through to 8 and 9 year old brains. They may not understand them entirely but it is getting through. Osmosis. I hope all people directly involved take this as an opportunity to make changes. The young camper who was bullied needs care and apologies. The other campers need care, education, and appropriate consequences. As adults, these two white campers may cite this memory as being the moment that they too became aware of an underlying mistrust or fear in their developing hearts and minds. Sadly the black camper’s memory will be a much different one but with counseling and the love of his family and friends, I hope he’ll be okay. A teachable moment for all of us.

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