A Gilbert seventh-grader provided information leading to Monday’s arrest of two teen counselors accused of abusing children at a Prescott leadership camp last summer.
The boy was among 18 young victims of what Prescott police are calling a hazing, during which it is alleged they were assaulted with a broom handle and choked to the point of unconsciousness.
Last summer, at least seven students from Scottsdale’s Coronado High School were expelled and the band teacher resigned after hazing at a Flagstaff band camp. Ten students duct-taped the wrists and ankles of five freshman and sophomore band members and put underwear over their heads, according to district records.
In the recent Prescott case, the Gilbert boy told his mother about the incidents in December, which he said occurred in the boys’ cabin at Chapel Rock during a weeklong camp sponsored by the annual Arizona Association of Junior High Student Councils, according to a Prescott police report.
“It would depend on the junior counselor’s mood or if a boy did something they did not like if the boy got ‘broomsticked,’ ” the police report said. “One would hold the boy and bend him over and the other would grab a broom, cane or mag light and ‘ram it up the butt.’ ”
The boys were clothed, the report said, though this youngster was wearing gym shorts and another boy was in his underwear.
The family left a note on the front door of their Gilbert home Tuesday that read, “No comment due to sensitivity of this issue. Please respect our privacy.”
According to the police report, the boy’s mother called Greenfield Junior High drama teacher Kelly Biggs on Dec. 8 and told her what her son had said happened at the camp. Biggs contacted principal Jill Bowers, who spoke with the school resource officer, who advised her to call Prescott police. Bowers reported the boy’s allegations Dec. 13.
Police on Monday arrested Clifton Bennett, 18, son of Senate President Ken Bennett, RPrescott, and 19-year-old Kyle Wheeler of Glendale. They also expect to arrest a juvenile suspect. The men have been booked on suspicion of 18 counts of aggravated assault and 18 counts of kidnapping.
The camp is intended for Arizona junior and middle school student council members to develop leadership skills and learn more about how student councils operate.
Phoenix middle school teacher Anne Slamka, who runs the camp as executive director of the association, said Tuesday she expects to host campers this summer. She referred questions to Mesa attorneys Leo Condos and Douglas Kunath.
“This is really a bad time for me, because when you work real hard for something and then you have a few spoil it for you,” she said. “Everything will just continue on.”
Parents of children who attended the camp last summer received letters from Slamka, urging them to contact the attorneys with questions or Prescott police with any information that could help the ongoing investigation.
“We are proud to say that this is the first incident in almost 40 years of operating the summer camps,” her letter said. “We are cooperating fully to insure the continued safety of your children.”
Kunath said Tuesday his office hadn’t received any calls from parents.
About 200 students are supervised by 10 to 12 teachers and 15 to 20 junior counselors who are high school student council members and who typically attended earlier as campers, according to camp alumnus Dusty Terrill.
“It was wonderful. Some of my fondest memories,” said Terrill, an Arizona State University junior who first attended as an eighth-grader and then spent four years as a junior camper from Casa Grande Union High School.
He said junior counselors met each morning to go over the day’s events, but received virtually no training and were expected to use their own judgment about when to notify an adult. If a child was homesick, he said, “they told us to just try to work them through it.”
“(Slamka) would tell us how important it was that we act mature,” he said. “We were just supposed to keep an eye on them.”
The Gilbert seventh-grader said he told his mother about last summer’s incident in a letter home, and then retold it to his mother last month after he heard girls at school discussing how much fun they had at camp. The boy said he never told adults at the camp because the junior counselors threatened them with more “broomsticking” if they told, according to the police report.
The youngster also told police that “counselors would lift the kids up by the neck and choke them until they passed out.”
The counselors showed the boys how to pass out by taking deep breaths to get dizzy and “the counselor would then pinch the side of the boy’s neck and the boy would pass out,” according to the police report.
Arizona parents are on their own when it comes to determining the safety of sleep-away camps — even when those outings are organized by their local schools.
The state doesn’t regulate resident camps and even camps that are accredited by outside organizations don’t require that groups renting their facilities meet their more rigorous standards.
Leaders of the American Camp Association, the gold standard for resident camp accreditation, say parents should not be afraid to ask questions of camp directors or school administrators regarding staff training and supervision.
“When you put students in a supervisory role, things change,” said Cathy Scheder, an administrator with the Indiana-based association. “They may be really good students, but if they don’t have experience or training . . .”
In any case, Scheder said, background checks on teens rarely turn up anything. What’s needed, she said, is better training and supervision of young counselors, as well as educating parents about what questions to ask.