Chilmark camp policies beefed up

Post-strap incident revamp presented to select board.

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Keira Lapsley, CTAC’s new executive director, gave the Chilmark select board a progress report on reforms at the organization's summer camp.

Chilmark’s select board heard a report Wednesday morning on progress made at the Chilmark Town Affairs Council (CTAC) specific to a camp it runs at the Chilmark Community Center. 

The camp was the scene of what the Vineyard’s chapter of the NAACP described as a “racially insensitive” incident. That incident saw a young Black camper, a boy, neck-slung by two white boys with a tent strap. Those boys were also campers. The incident erupted into a nationally covered scandal that drew condemnation not just for what was found to be bullying, but for the echoes of lynching that act evoked. The incident triggered a lawsuit and settlement, the installation of a new executive director, and a pledge by the CTAC to reform itself so an incident like that never happens again. 

Suellen Lazarus, new president of the CTAC, gave the select board a laundry list of progress made by CTAC designed to uphold the organization’s past pledge. “We’ve really used this change in leadership as an opportunity to review all of our policies and procedures, and embed safety and inclusive, fair environment in all of our programs,” Lazarus said. “So we have counsel on retainer; we’ve worked closely with other Island organizations, with our insurance carrier. We have a new medical advisor who’s helping us. And we’ve looked to partner with other Island organizations working in a similar space. As you can imagine, changing culture is not the easiest thing. So we’ve had some pushback, but we think we’re making really good progress.”

Among the organizations CTAC is making connections with, Lazarus said, is Pam Benjamin’s Sense of Wonder Day Camp. She also noted the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) won’t run a camp this season, but will instead send campers to the Chilmark Community Center. 

“That represents somewhere between 10 and 15 children,” she said. 

Lazarus pointed out CTAC has revamped its human resources procedures. “We’ve revised our hiring procedures,” she said. “We heard what you said about concerns about safety, and we think that having consistent counselors — consistency in staff throughout the summer — is really important. So we’ve required that staff be there — commit to a minimum of four weeks each summer, rather than having staff constantly rotating in, and the pressure of retraining or newly training staff …”

Lazarus went on to say, “We reviewed the salary structure across the camp to ensure that all staff were paid fairly and equitably across the camp. We found that admin people were paid more than those people watching children — often responsible for a lot of little children — and we’ve tried to reconcile that. No one can work without a contract. You’d be surprised that’s a novel concept, but it is. And our contract now includes a commitment to our values statement and a commitment to participating in two days of training before camp begins. And part of that training is really key to us in terms of safety and in terms of building in diversity.”

Keira Lapsley, CTAC’s new executive director, said the training will incorporate “both the diversity, equity, and inclusion pieces, as well as our safety pieces.”

“We’re having Bow Van Riper from the M.V. Museum come and talk about the history of the town and the people there, and talk about land acknowledgements.”

Lapsley said there will be work and training revolving around “identity and belonging and community building,” and “about how to ensure inclusive play among campers.”

Lapsley also said, “We also have Kyle Williams from A Long Talk coming to do an abbreviated program called ‘Cultivating a Culture of Antiracism,’ where he will give some historical context as well as give some protocol into rules for interrupting bias behavior that’s happening in the moment.”

Lapsley said the camp also has experts coming to speak on implicit bias and microaggressions, and offer tools on “how to respond to and interrupt microaggressions, and anything that might be happening that might make someone feel emotionally unsafe.”

Lapsley said there will also be training given on “basic conflict resolution.”

Another aspect of training, she said, will cover the “safety and supervision of children.” Lapsley said this will include child management skills and first aid. 

Select board chair Jim Malkin asked if there was anything in the training “regarding bullying.”

Lapsley said the training that covered implicit bias and microaggression would cover that subject.

Lapsley echoed something Malkin said earlier in the meeting, that he disliked using stock phrases. Nonetheless, she found one was appropriate to convey her point: “If you see something, say something — so thinking about if kids are feeling empowered enough to be an upstander — we’ll talk about what it means to be a bystander versus an being an upstander … Maybe you feel empowered to use your voice to interrupt, but if you don’t, who do you talk to, where can you go? So having them also understand if something is happening, who can they go to, right, who can they talk to — for the campers but also for the staff as well.”

Lapsley added if it is observed that somebody “is being mistreated physically or with words, how do we respond to that?”

Malkin said he appreciated what Lapsley had said thus far, but he wanted to “push” on the subject a little bit more. 

Malkin said sometimes what’s experienced isn’t a microaggression but when “bullies are physically bullying.” Malkin said he wanted to ensure the CTAC was “training the counselors or the staff to know when and how to step in and how to separate …” Malkin noted in some schools, people overseeing kids aren’t allowed to physically touch those kids. 

“But clearly,” he said, “in some situations you have to move people away from people, so I just want to make sure you cover the egregious acts as well.’

“So it sounds like what you’re talking about is sort of disciplinary protocols,” Lapsley said, “which will be in that safety supervision conversation that I’m having with counselors — what to do — so if something is, if it can be handled with a conflict resolution conversation, great. If not, right, and it’s escalating, then that’s a disciplinary matter where the admin steps in, and we are alerted, and then I would probably be the person to come separate the child, call the family, and follow up with disciplinary measures.”

“Great,” Malkin said, adding he was “delighted” with the training outlined. Malkin noted there was just a “horrible incident in Edgartown” that wound up in court “and has to do with people paying attention, and if you’re paying the people to pay attention, and how to do things when they see things, I think that’s wonderful. Thank you.”

“I just want to applaud you guys,” select board member Bill Rossi said to Lazarus, Lapsley, and other CTAC officers on the Zoom. He made note of the commitments to change made by CTAC last year. “You really seemed to follow through on your promise last season to improve the situation at the community center with a better trained staff, more highly qualified staff … you’ve hired a new executive director, and I look forward to meeting her in person,” he said. “You really took things seriously, and you’ve done a lot of work.”

“It was a difficult experience that we went through for everybody,” Malkin said, “whether they’re part of the town or part of the summer program … and now seeing the fruits of that work, here in the presentation that you’ve just made, things that you’ve done organizationally, things that you’ve done particularly with training — we live in an age where this stuff is really, really important, has been important in the past, but the fact that we’re actually doing it now is, I think, terrific. So thank you all for that.”

In other business, the board unanimously extended an offer to Michael Delay to be a new patrol officer in the Chilmark Police Department. 

The board unanimously approved the Chilmark Road Race for August 13, and unanimously to endorse a high school capital funding formula. 

“I know it was a lot of work to put this together,” select board member Warren Doty said of the formula hashed out between the six Island towns. “I appreciate all the work that was done to make this happen.”

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