1977 killings changed the face of security at summer camps
Oklahomans forever re-defined summer camp 30 years ago this week after three Girl Scouts were abducted from their tent and murdered at Camp Scott in Locust Grove. For those who remember the aftermath of the June 13, 1977, homicides, it was a time that fostered nightmares and prompted people to lock their doors for the first time. The security of children at summer camps would no longer be taken for granted. That legacy appears to be present today at summer camps statewide whether new generations of parents and counselors realize it or not. Security issues are a high priority. "Our campers and counselors wear colored wrist bands, similar to something you might see in a hospital,” said Chuck Childs, a Boy Scout administrator at Camp Simpson near Milburn. "If we see someone in camp who is not wearing that band, we approach them immediately and ask them if we can help them in any way. "If they aren't supposed to be there, they are asked to leave.” Such measures are now commonplace throughout Oklahoma and beyond.
A lot of changesJeff Solomon has watched summer camp security increase nationwide in recent decades as executive director of the National Camp Association, a New York-based organization that monitors summer camps coast to coast. Solomon's organization is continually bombarded with security questions from parents in search of a safe summer camp for their child. "Twenty-five years ago I could drive my car into a camp, park, and walk around without ever being questioned,” Solomon said. "Today, I don't know of one camp where that could happen. You'd either be stopped at a front gate or have to call ahead of time to let them know you were coming. "Security at summer camps 30 years ago compared to today is like night and day. We just live in a different world now.” So do those associated with the Girl Scouts of Magic Empire Council, which closed Camp Scott 30 years ago after the discovery of murder victims Lori Lee Farmer, 8, of Tulsa; Michelle Guse, 9, of Broken Arrow; and Doris Denise Milner, 10, of Tulsa. The Tulsa-based Girl Scouts organization — one of five in Oklahoma — since has sold the 410-acre camp site.
A constant reminderToday, no one with the Magic Empire Council will discuss security, according to spokeswoman Kristi Engle, although the stigma of the 1977 slayings is evident on its Web site. "The senseless tragedy of 1977 will surely remain in the hearts and minds of all who care for children in Oklahoma,” an official site posting reads. "Thankfully, nothing like this has ever happened before or since this tragedy. We have stringent practices in place to ensure the safety of all girls in our care, such as background checks and extensive safety training for all who work with girls, strict ratios of girls for adult supervisors for all activities, and we do not disclose the location of our campsites to the public. "In fact, we exceed the safety guidelines set by Girl Scouts of the USA and the American Camp Association, and constantly evaluate our standards for areas of improvement, because the safety and well-being of girls is our first priority.”
Loss of innocenceOklahomans who remember the murders as children generally share the common perspective of lost innocence. "My parents tried to shelter me from the news, but inevitably you heard about what had happened around town,” recalled Bonnie Buzzard, 46 and a life-long Locust Grove resident. "Suddenly, you felt scared, like you couldn't go in the back yard to catch fireflies or else someone might snatch you up and take you away.” A year later, a then-17-year-old Buzzard attended a weeklong cheerleading camp in Arkansas. "Looking back now, I can't imagine what my mother must have been thinking when she let me go to camp, knowing that three girls were murdered at a summer camp only a year earlier,” Buzzard said. Summer camps continue to introduce children to the outdoors, and adventurous activities like horseback riding, swimming, hiking, climbing, canoeing and archery.
Helping childrenRoxanne and Kim Kerley hope to see their campers reach such lofty heights as well each summer at their 40-acre camp outside Duncan. "A lot of kids don't get to go on a vacation, and a lot of times when kids get back to school, people will talk about where they went on their summer vacation. These kids now have a story to tell. That's important,” Roxanne Kerley said. "We give them three days of fun, just to be themselves without pressure they might face on a daily basis. In the end, we give them a Bible.”
Feeling secureBackground checks on volunteers and staff members, security guards, colored wrist bands, and smaller counselor-to-camper ratios are just some of the steps taken these days by various summer camp organizations. "Although the children never realize it, they are probably watched and guarded more at camp than if they were at home,” McWhorter said. Summer camp administrators contacted by The Oklahoman all stressed that counselors are never permitted to be alone with a camper. Still, dangers exist. In 2002, a 12-year-old girl at a church camp near Tishomingo was molested and raped. Johnston County Assistant District Attorney Charles Migliorino said charges were dropped against an out-of-state suspect, who produced an alibi for his whereabouts at the time of the incident. Migliorino said the investigation into the allegation made one thing abundantly clear. "Basically, you had people who trusted other people because they were at a Christian camp,” Migliorino said. "They believed if you were at a Christian camp, then you shared the same beliefs and values as other Christians. Well, that's not always how it works. They were trusting people who became untrusting. Unfortunately, there are some things we just can't prevent. Bad things happen.”
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