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The courage of a boy named Cole

Camp is where memories are made and life lessons learned. But camp also can be a free-fire zone for bullies. Cole knows. His camp memories this summer are of rejection and loneliness; the lesson was how to persevere. And in his sweet, quiet way, Cole did

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By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / August 8, 2010

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Second in a series of occasional articles on bullying and its impact on children, adults, and institutions.

SANDWICH, N.H. — In a cabin of boisterous, athletic boys, there, too, was Cole. The 10-year-old is a devout comic book reader. An only child, he is close to his parents, favors large T-shirts that hide his bulky frame, tends to hover close to people he wants to befriend, and prefers arts and crafts to the sports activities offered at Camp Hale.

It didn’t take long for the taunts to come, many of them focused on his weight.

“Cole looks like a big bear,’’ was among the least hurtful.

Counselors were quick to act. They recalled their three-hour training session on bullying and called out the boys lobbing the taunts. They told Cole to be strong. The taunts continued. On the third night of camp, before bedtime, they gathered the boys.

“I tried to explain to them that not everyone is the same and you have to meet people where they are at,’’ recalled Royal Nunes, the 19-year-old lead counselor in the bunk of seven boys. “I had Cole talk about how he felt; he said he felt sad. Then the whole cabin got up and apologized and agreed to work together toward not doing that.’’

A few days later, the taunts began anew.

Like schools, camps are confronting the challenge of bullying. In the aftermath of the case of Phoebe Prince, the teenager who killed herself last spring after suffering the slings of bullies at South Hadley High School, the risk of not taking action is too high, in the view of many camps. But what of a case like Cole’s? Over the course of three weeks, counselors would devote time, energy, and resources to ending the bullying of Cole, only to arrive, with difficulty, at a recognition of the limits of what they could do in the short span of a camp session.

As part of the Globe’s ongoing examination of bullying and adults’ efforts to control it, a reporter spent parts of a recent session at Camp Hale, where addressing bullying was a focus this summer. With the permission of parents, the Globe was permitted to interview campers, including Cole, and to observe their daily interactions. To safeguard their privacy, the paper is identifying Cole and his parents only by their first names and withholding the names of other campers quoted in this report.

Specialists say that children can be especially prone to bullying at camp, as they try to establish their place in the social order of the new setting. Forming alliances and cliques that exclude one child is a typical ploy, an easy means of gaining power and status. Such bullying can be especially hard on a child in a 24-hour-a-day environment, far from home and normal social supports.

It is now standard practice for camps to hold in-depth training sessions for counselors on bullying, taught by either a child psychologist or camp administrator.

Campers, too, are briefed on bullying and asked to incorporate a no-bullying pledge into “bunk agreements’’ that are drawn up at the start of many sessions.

Camps have stepped up supervision during transitions between activities, such as the walk from the archery range to the waterfront, when bullying often occurs. Supervision is particularly intense at the start of camp.

“The first couple of days are times of high social complexity; it’s when the kids are just getting to know one another,’’ said Heather Kiley, director of Camp Merrowvista in Center Tuftonboro, N.H. “So it’s then that a staff member’s presence is very important. It allows kids to transition into the community. It creates a safe environment where kids can relax.’’

Certain rites of summer camp are being rethought. Pranks — even the tamer ones, such as filling shoes with shaving cream — are no longer allowed at some camps, or only with counselor supervision, for fear that they will be aimed at the most vulnerable few.

For many camps, such policies are selling points to parents.

“Camping is a very competitive market; there are choices,’’ said Greg Pierce, director of Pierce Camp Birchmont in Wolfeboro, N.H. “Parents are looking for the best possible environment.’’

Camp directors say the strongest line of defense against bullying remains the counselors, many of whom are teenagers themselves, often just a few years older than their campers.

“To be a great counselor, you have to spend time with the difficult child, the child who cries all the time,’’ Jerrell Cox, director of Camp Hale, told his staff days before the start of camp. “The meaningful relationship will carry you through the summer, so that when someone says something, he’ll come to you and tell you. Then you can go to the bully and say, ‘What’s going on?’ ’’

He continued: “We have to show them that we are vigilant. We are attentive. Our goal is to prevent bullying 100 percent.’’

A counselor with authority
Camp Hale is spread along the shores of Squam Lake, not far from the filming site of “On Golden Pond.’’ it is tidily rustic, with tin-roofed cabins lined with metal frame beds and exposed rafters that beg to be swung from, and sometimes are. The start of meals and activities is signaled with the scratchy recording of a bugle call, blaring from loudspeakers. The all-boys camp, founded in 1900 and operated by the nonprofit United South End Settlements, draws campers principally from the South End, Roxbury, and Dorchester. Many come from low-income families, and financial aid is afforded, though parents are expected to contribute.

Cox, the camp director, is a 26-year-old Boston native who wears his hair in long braids and uses a brand of authoritarian tenderness with his charges. The threat of getting sent to Mr. Jerrell is enough to stop most campers in the midst of an infraction, be it talking back or wearing pants low enough to show boxer shorts. (“We are gentlemen here.’’)

Yet there is a sensitivity in Cox that gives him an uncanny ability to size up 10-year-old boys and sift through their maze of emotions and antics.

“When he talks to me, I feel calm,’’ Cole said of Cox.

From day one, Cox kept an eye on Cole. Cole had attended Camp Hale the year before and had been the target of jibes. Cox had encouraged Cole to return this summer, talking with his mother and father and empathizing with Cole, telling him about how he, too, had been a heavy-set kid when he attended Camp Hale years earlier. He had also been made fun of. A counselor had consoled him and given him strength, he recalled. He wanted Cole’s counselors to do the same for him.

“We have to let them know that they are perfect the way they are,’’ he told counselors in the training session before camp began, referring to children like Cole. “These are the sorts of things we want to build up in these children.’’

Cox knew that for Cole, as for many campers, the basic struggle was simply making friends. Cole is not a natural at the verbal volleying of 10-year-olds. He does not watch sports, leaving him unable to participate in a major topic of conversation. His friends at school in Boston tend to be interested in science and his favorite style of comic, anime. Boys with those interests are in short supply at camp, but especially in his cabin. To seek acceptance, Cole tended to push his way into groups, often playfully poking people, a move that soon grated on other campers.

“Cole was following everyone and poking people,’’ said a tall boy with braces from Roxbury who was friends with Cole last summer. “I forgot that I was friends with Cole.’’

“He was annoying,’’ said another boy, from Mattapan.

The boys made a pact.

“We decided we would all just laugh at Cole,’’ one of them said.

When the laughing began, Cole sobbed, so hard at times that he could not explain to counselors what had happened.

The crying, counselors say, cemented Cole’s trajectory.

The other kids “realized he was an easy target,’’ Nunes said.

Counselors convened the all-bunk meeting of the boys and discussed Cole’s situation at their Sunday night all-staff meeting. Afterward, counselors campwide began tending to Cole.

“I made sure to say hi to Cole,’’ said Jonn Semexant, a 22-year-old counselor from Medford. “I’d celebrate the little things, like his being on time to line-up. I’d ask Cole: ‘What’s up? Love you buddy.’ ’’

“Cole is a sensitive kid,’’ said Heather Favot, the camp nurse. “He internalizes everything. . . . When he’d come to see me, he’d want hugs. So each day, I tried to be sure I saw him.’’

Counselors emphasized to Cole that he needed to feel proud and push back against his tormenters.

“You got to love yourself,’’ Nunes recalled telling Cole.

A few days later, Cole took him at his word. When a scuffle broke out in the bunk, one boy pushed Cole, and another boy yelled at him. This time, Cole did not cry. He punched one of the boys.

Counselors could not abide Cole’s hitting another child, but they inwardly cheered him. He had stood up to an adversary in front of the other boys. Now their task was to rechannel Cole’s push-back.

“We put forth the message that if he wants to stand up for himself, he needs to use words, ’’ Cox said. “It’s kind of a mixed message: We want them to take these sorts of things into their hands but not literally.’’

There were other signs of Cole’s emerging strength. He excelled in archery and arts and crafts. He climbed 2,000-foot mountains. He made friends with two boys in different cabins, quiet, inward boys like him. And on July 10, at the close of parents weekend, Cole seemed more at ease than he had been the previous year when he had stood, crying, as his parents drove away. This year, before they had reached the parking lot, Cole said to them, “Mommy and Daddy, I am very proud of you.’’ Then he walked away, said his father, John.

“It made me feel so good to see him walk away before we reached the car,’’ his father said.

It was progress, but Cole’s problems had not been completely solved. The boys in Cole’s bunk, as far as adults could see, were doing what they had pledged.

“He’s everyone’s friend in the cabin,’’ one boy said, but then confessed that they treated Cole differently when parents and counselors were away. “It’s all fake-playing,’’ the boy said. “The cabin doesn’t like him because he’s getting everyone in trouble.’’

In an interview shortly after parents weekend, when asked about his friends at camp, Cole made quick mention of two friends in other cabins but none in his own. He said that he sometimes told his counselors about the bullying, but other times handled it himself.

“I’m sometimes mean to kids because they bother me,’’ he said. “It’s so hard.’’

Cole bent his head and caved his shoulders. “They keep bullying me,’’ he said. “And they said I could go home.’’

Tears were forming, and he looked up and asked, “But how come I didn’t get to go home?’’

Dangerous consequences
Child psychologists say there is little question that stopping bullies is better than the laissez faire approach of 30 years ago, when children were largely left to sort out their own conflicts.

Research has shown that repetitive taunts and put-downs can have long-term psychological effects.

Yet some say the new interventionist approach can go too far.

“There’s a danger of turning a bunch of kids into victims, instead of standing up for themselves,’’ said Ethan Schafer, a child psychologist who advises summer camps. “We do have to teach kids not to run to adults for every conflict that comes up.’’

A counselor at Camp Hale, Jake Giberson, 19, put it this way: “When I was in camp, there used to be less supervision. There were a lot more fights, and that was the end of it. Now, there are a lot less fights, but things never get settled, because we step in.’’

But as parents demand more safeguards for their children, camps including Camp Hale view strict antibullying policies as mandatory, telling counselors they cannot simply look the other way.

“Reporting [bullying] to us is keeping a child safe,’’ Cox told his counselors at one of the late-night Sunday staff meetings in the chow hall where bullying control dominates the conversation. “Tattling is trying to get someone in trouble. We want the children to know the difference. If someone is making their quality of life less, we want to know.’’

A difficult decision
On the last day of camp, six boys huddled, playing a card game. Only Cole lay on his bed, reading a comic book. No one invited him to play, and he made no overtures to join the game.

His counselor, Nunes, approached and sat on his bed.

“Do you want to read or do you want to play?’’

“Read.’’

“Are you sure?’’

Cole nodded, his eyes darting across the comic panels.

Little would lift his mood, not even learning from the nurse that he had lost 10 pounds in three weeks.

“I’m not coming back,’’ he said as he walked away from the nurse’s office to get ready to go home to Boston.

When asked why, Cole shook his head.

His counselor felt equally down-beat.

“I wasn’t able to stop a problem,’’ said Karriem Bowers, 16, the counselor in training assigned to Cole’s bunk. “I tried to be over-the-top strict, and it didn’t work. . . . I tried the whole, ‘This is a fraternity, and you need to treat everyone like they are your brother.’ They absorb it and release it.’’

He said time was against him. Three weeks was not enough to break the bullies and strengthen Cole.

“If we had another two weeks, I believe the bullying would not be a problem,’’ Bowers said.

Back home in Boston, Cole told his parents, in dribs and drabs, of the bullying, leaving them pained over whether to send him back for second session, as planned.

“I don’t want to stop my son from going to a camp where he can benefit, just because he’s being bullied,’’ said his mother, Tonya. Yet when he came home, she said, “my son had tears in his eyes. ‘Mommy, please don’t send me back,’ he said. And that breaks my heart, to see my son like that.’’

His father, John, was similarly conflicted.

“It’s a weird position to be in as a parent,’’ he said. “It’s heartbreaking because you want it to work out perfectly but your life can’t work out that way.’’

John said he knows his son is still learning social skills and often upends the process by trying to press children into friendship. “It’s so hard, because I want to say to my son, ‘Don’t try so hard,’ ’’ John said. “It’s only as an adult that you realize that some people are not going to be your friends.’’

He believed that sending Cole back to camp would help Cole along a path to learning some of those life lessons.

“My whole thing is I am relying on the counselors and the camp,’’ the father said.

Cox wanted Cole back, and on a Saturday afternoon, Cox visited Cole with his parents at their apartment. Cox explained that the second session would include older campers, the 11-to-14 crowd, who would be more mature and would probably be easier for Cole to befriend.

“Cole is strong, stronger than you think,’’ Cox recalled telling his parents. “The bullying h

o move on.’’

Cole’s parents agreed: Cole would visit his uncle in Florida and then return to Camp Hale for the last two weeks of the second three-week session.

Last Monday evening, the day before his scheduled return to Camp Hale, Cole sat with his mother in their community garden where they had watered their tomatoes, hot peppers, and green beans under the light of a setting sun.

When conversation turned to the next day, Cole burrowed under his mother’s arm, saying: “No! You’re not forcing me back to New Hampshire. You’re not doing it!’’

“Why are you doing this, Cole?’’ his mother asked.

“I really hate New Hampshire and that camp!’’

“Do you know how many kids never get a chance to go to a camp like that? You’re getting an opportunity to do other things, Cole,’’ his mother said.

“If those kids are picking on me, I’m going to lose it,’’ Cole said.

“But did you lose it?’’

“No.’’

“And you won’t,’’ she said. “I promise you will be all right. Mr. Jerrell will make sure he looks after you. OK? Kids are kids. You’re a kid.’’

Cole looked up at his mother and smiled.

“Are you going to be OK?’’

“I hope so,’’ he said, entwining her hand in his.