Acknowledgements: Thank you to Samantha McLoughlin, Ava Vargason, Jasmine Stidham, Iris Chen, Anshul Reddy, and Leah Yeshitila for all the time and care that they put into helping review and develop this article. Additional thanks to all the people I contacted to conduct the survey (not listed here because of anonymity).
Debate is no stranger to issues of sexism, especially in intimate camp environments.* Discussions with my friends who worked at camp last year sparked the creation of this article, as I learned that many camps lack effective sexual harassment training. This article will focus on ways that camps can change their policies to minimize harmful effects of gender-based harassment, as well as how individuals and educators can select camps. It will also outline the importance of training, as safety and inclusivity are critical to allowing many debaters to be able to participate in this activity. This article is not a conclusive list of answers, but is rather meant to generate a broader conversation about the importance of sexual harassment training at debate camps. Finally, although this article primarily is focused on sexual harassment training, other forms of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice training should be explored to help address other inequalities and issues that may occur at camp.
*Below is a list of articles regarding instances of gender based discrimination and sexual misconduct in debate that discuss debate camps:
Sexual harassment training is a critical part of any ethical organization. Multiple studies have supported the idea that sexual harassment programs are useful. When training was conducted, there was shown to be a decreased probability of unwanted sexual interactions (Antecol and Cobb-clack 2003). Staff who were exposed to training videos were more likely to correctly identify harassing behavior (Roehling and Huang 2015, 145-146). Finally, it has been noted that these policies have a strong future in organizations, and have been effective historically. Although some articles were inconclusive about the exact results of sexual harassment training, they do suggest that training can mitigate harassing behaviors to at least some extent (Roehling et al. 2021, 20-22). Overall, my research concluded that training is consistently helpful for ensuring that instructors know the policies, which also makes them less likely to engage in bad conduct or report it if they notice something crossing the line.
In addition, even if training doesn’t provide any new information, it also signals that the admin of the camp takes harassment seriously. A lack of a training program, handbook, or comprehensive plan can show that the camp will not be prepared to act quickly or effectively if an incident were to occur. Without a strong message from camp directors about the importance of regulations surrounding staffer-student relationships, staffers and students may be less comfortable, and it could also embolden potential predators.
Debate also adds additional challenges and issues. Power dynamics are a major cause of bullying or harassment, and debate has unique power differentials. For example, those could include: the competitive success of debaters or instructors, school influence, pre-existing reputations of coaches and students, previous attendance at debate camps, proximity to lab leaders, and more.
These power differentials are especially present at camps, because they primarily hire first year outs and younger undergraduates, who lack experience regulating and establishing boundaries with teenagers. Because the age gap between students and instructors can be as small as a year, knowing how to act as an instructor can be unfamiliar. Addressing and understanding the specific instances of harassment that can happen in debate is conducive to creating a more inclusive, safe, and healthy camp culture.
Actionable Solutions - Camps
While researching ideal debate-contextual sexual harassment training programs, I contacted Ava Vargason, the lead consultant for the Harassment Training Program that the Women's Debate Institute (WDI) created, to inform this section. This is a non-comprehensive list of what need to be included in training based on what Ava reported:
Definitions of sexual harassment.
Statistics on the prevalence of sexual harassment within the age groups that the camp serves. For most camps, this would be about high schoolers.
Prevalence of adult to student abuse should also be discussed. It is also better if the data is more specific to debate environments, but that can be harder to find than just general information.
Warning signs of when bullying or harassment occurs.
How to talk to a student who is going through these issues. The training should note that empathy, kindness, and safety should be emphasized when discussing with the student directly.
The reporting structure and chain of command for sexual harassment processes should be gone over. That should also include what the camp’s official statement is on how they would investigate reports of harassment.
How instructors should establish appropriate boundaries with students.
Strategies for developing a culture to deter forms of abuse. That would include bystander training and the benefits of bystander intervention.
Discussion about the staff’s status as mandatory reporters, what that entails, and meeting state specific regulations.
It is also better to use more interactive training (Kalinoski et al. 2012). That could look like having demonstrations, practices, and discussions, instead of just a lecture and a slideshow. In addition, live learning tools like quizzes through Kahoot, polling through Poll Everywhere, or discussion boards on Micro Whiteboards. Multiple methods of delivery were also seen as being most effective (Roehling et al. 2021, 23). In addition, staff could also “role play” scenarios, where they act as students and staff to practice response to a scenario.
Generic sexual harassment programs typically are not sufficient to address the unique conditions at debate camps. They often only cover relationships and interactions between adults. Even the programs that do describe how to interact with children are frequently contextual to younger kids like elementary schoolers and don’t address debate’s environment and the smaller age gap. Those training programs also aren’t sufficient because they don’t outline the specific policies of that organization. Instructors will be left not knowing who to contact, or when they should reach out to admin or a third party.
Some ways that training can be made more specific are:
Scenario response training, which could include a discussion to your instructors what they would do in camp specific harassment instances, and talking about their solutions. Here are some non-exhaustive examples of questions and scenarios that could be discussion:
If a student tries to add you on social media (like Facebook or Instagram) during camp while you are in a supervisory position, would you accept their request? Why or why not?
What would your response be if a student asked you for your personal cell phone number during camp?
How would you establish clear boundaries with a student that you already know and are friends with prior to becoming a staff member?
Is there any instance where it would be appropriate for a lab leader to talk to a student outside camp-approved channels?
What steps would you take if you notice a guy speaking over a girl within a group discussion?
How would you handle a student saying something inappropriate about an identity argument while answering a question (i.e. saying racism doesn’t exist anymore)?
If one of your lab students tells you that another student has been rude and condescending, how would you respond at the moment and what additional actions would you take to rectify the situation?
Giving a presentation that contextualizes information from the training to what it can look like at debate camp.
Providing additional information and resources about how to navigate a camp environment.
Considering what kinds of material would be the most relevant to a debate camp.
In addition to conducting actual training sessions, regardless of its content, it is helpful to reinforce the established guidelines throughout camp. Many instructors I interviewed did not remember what the training had included. Although this could be because interviews were conducted in October, a few months after camp happened, this low retention rate is generally worrying.
The concepts described in training should also be actively practiced as part of the camp culture. This could look like informing students about whom to contact, or the admin setting an example to staff. In addition, many of the articles linked at the beginning of the article also describe how debate culture could be changed positively.
In-House vs External
When considering if in-house or external training is the best practice, the actual content and quality of the training matters a lot more than who is doing it. If there is someone working for the camp who has the ability and knowledge to lead it, that is sufficient. However, having the bandwidth to do that could be difficult for camps, especially smaller ones. In those instances, using an external program is better. Regardless of the method chosen, camps should research the program to ensure it provides information that is helpful and applicable to the camp environment, and not only a box instructors need to check. The material should also be as contextual to debate as possible, especially if using an external training program. A potential alternative to that is discussing camp specific concepts after the generic training.
A handbook can also be helpful for retention and clarity. It is a useful resource that instructors can reference during camp, and it also ensures standardization of procedures for reporting and responding. Ideally, this handbook should be organization specific, and comprehensively cover the camp's policies, including the chain of command and who to contact. It alone is not a substitute for training, it should just be a means for instructors to reference what was gone over during the training. In addition, the handbook should be clear to navigate (sexual harassment not being mentioned offhandedly after many pages and in a random paragraph).
Chain of Command
It is ideal for camps to have a small group of staff to handle harassment or other emergency issues. That group’s responsibilities would include speaking to all affected individuals and concluding about what the next steps should be in any given situation. Clearly identifying this group to the students and staff would create a trusted party and reduce chances for student confidentiality breaches.
It can also be useful if this person or group is external to the camp admin, i.e., someone independent of the instructors and other staff. It is important to have multiple people to report to, as well as guarantees of anonymity. That is because if a member of leadership who oversees harassment harasses someone, it would be impossible for that to be reported. That also applies if there is a singular person that needs to know about every single reported instance and is also highly involved with running the camp. It is imperative to foster an environment where students feel safe and comfortable enough to report instructors.
Debate camps have an obligation to the community to make policy violations by instructors more public. In previous years, even after instructors have been sent home for harassment and other related issues, it has been covered up by the camp, explained as a family emergency, or not discussed. A lack of transparency about what happened allows predators to stay active in the community, and it puts more students at risk. Although witness confidentiality is essential, a balance between transparency and confidentiality can be achieved without completely concealing it. It is critical to explain publically why someone was fired, the complaint that was received, etc. In addition, directors could reach out to other camps to make sure that they are aware in the case that someone is fired for misconduct. Across camps, tournaments, schools, and individuals, it is important that offenders are not rehired.
Finally, it would be ideal for camps to make these practices publically accessible on their websites for accountability, allowing prospective students and their families to view them. The reason why training and industry standards in debate are inconsistent and essentially nonexistent, might be because camps lack accrediting agencies. For example, the American Camp Association, or the ACA, has reputable accreditation for youth sleep away camps: the ACA seal is typically displayed on the websites of these camps. ACA accreditation is relevant because it’s an external third party with clear standards. For example, they look at staff-to-camper ratios, training for staff, availability of first aid and emergency transportation, and quality of camp activities and food (ACA). Lack of a clear regulatory body means that camps are not subject to any oversight about safety, and they don’t have to be transparent about it. Most debate camps don’t post this information publicly anywhere, and when they do, it is often incorrect or incomplete. However, they do usually have to follow the guidelines of the university where the camp is hosted, meaning there is some baseline level of mandated procedures. Regardless, camps should make an effort to display accurate and complete information about their policies on their websites.
When looking for resources to base training on, it can be helpful to look at previous approaches to similar issues, and peer reviewed studies. Title IX resources can also be used as a good baseline. Since Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in publicly funded schools and activities, the content it goes over is similar to what harassment training should include. At the bottom of the article, I have linked resources that WDI and the National Speech and Debate Association, NSDA, have used to develop their training, as well as sites that I thought were useful.
While researching for this article, I also came across other potential best practices about safety. This is not the focus of the article, so it will be relatively brief; however, I felt it was helpful to include. This is a non-exhaustive list of things that camps should do to create a better and safer camp environment:*
Training beyond sexual harassment - diversity, equity, inclusion and justice issues, emergency preparedness, substance abuse, etc.
Faculty guidance - i.e. always having an older lab leader paired with younger lab leaders. Often older instructors have more experience, have done more training, and can be receiving more training during the year from schools they work at.
Better hiring practices - hiring applications listed on the website for inclusivity, interviews before offers, references, background checks, etc. Samantha McLoughlin has gone more in depth on this issue in her article, Persisting: A Reflection Debate Camp Hiring Practices.
Camp nurse - helpful for student health and safety, distribution of medications, illness, promotion of hydration, and now COVD-19 policies and enforcement.
*Thank you to ISD for outlining many of these to me.
To evaluate current training programs more precisely, I surveyed information from twelve major adult-run debate camps. These were chosen based on Facebook advertisements, consultation with peers, and general knowledge. I asked various questions about the nature, implementation, and origin of the harassment training programs. These questions, the complete method, and additional information about the survey is listed at the end of the article.
Out of the twelve debate camps I emailed, nine camps' admin responded to me directly. In addition, I reached out to three instructors from each camp about their experience with harassment training, with the goal of confirming the information the camps gave me or gaining more insight into the training process. There were mixed results with this, as contact info was harder for me to find with less circuit involved camps, so this article may in general be skewed towards circuit debate. Additionally, some camp staff were not comfortable discussing training due to contracts or other obligations.
All the camps (including those that didn’t respond to me directly) had at least one staff member I was able to contact, and 8/12 had 3. The reason why the number of total camps vary for each statistic is because for some of them I was able to use the data I collected from the individual staff members, while some data relied on camps being able to report it. These are the relevant conclusions from the data:
25% didn’t have training at all (3/12).
40% of the camps had inconsistencies between what instructors or camp websites and camps reported they did for training (4/10). This number is out of 10 not 12 because for two of the camps I did not have multiple sources of information, so it was not possible for me to tell if there was a contradiction.
Out of the camps that did do training, only one had debate specific training, with the rest usually utilizing a generic online program (8/9). Some examples of the generic programs used are Trainright’s Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Training Program and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing’s Sexual Harassment Prevention Training.
And, out of the camps that used a generic program, only 25% had a discussion after the generic training (2/8).
These statistics are worrisome indicators of camps' commitment to harassment training and work towards an inclusive environment. In addition, the overreliance on generic programs should be replaced by more debate specific practices, as well as the other strategies mentioned in the previous section. However, I am glad that some of the camps I contacted described how they were improving their programs. This incremental change suggests that public pressure from the general community can shift the needle in the right direction.
Actionable Solutions - Students
In choosing a camp, students should consider the safety and general reputation of that camp in addition to its prestige. Even if a camp has produced a lot of successful debaters, if it has a bad reputation about how instructors or students are treated, it might not be the best choice. Ultimately, it is a decision that students need to make for themselves, but wellbeing and safety are far more important than a slight competitive advantage. That is especially true since there are plenty of excellent camps out there with good safety procedures.
As a small school debater, I was not aware of the reputation of certain larger debate camps until I was a few years into debate. If you are in a similar position, I would recommend reaching out to debaters that have gone to the camp about their experience there. You can also contact coaches that you trust in the community. Alternatively, you can talk to camps directly about what practices they have in place to ensure student safety. Finally, there are many communities such as Facebook groups which will be glad to help and introduce multiple perspectives.
Actionable Solutions - Educators
Coaches, as trusted adults to students, have an obligation when recommending camps that commonly hire predators to inform their students so they can make an accurate decision themselves. If you are uncertain about a certain camp's track record, it is best to seek out more information or err on the safe side of recommending a different camp. Especially because younger students don’t really know about any of the instances of harassment or mistreatment at camps, there is a responsibility to let kids know. Even if this information does not dissuade them from attending, it is necessary so they can at least factor that into their choice while also considering other important information like cost or availability.
In addition, if a coach has a student that is active in the debate community and has been accused of sexual harassment or has an active investigation against them, they should reach out to any camps they might work at. Educators have a responsibility to the community they teach in to do everything in their power and legal by the rules of the school to ensure the safety of all students. Background checks are not useful for younger instructors (almost nothing is on their records), and there are a lot of unreported instances of sexual harassment because of how taxing and time-consuming the process of reporting is. Private information should never be shared without the consent of the survivor, but even without specifics, it is imperative to say something. If you cannot provide a definitive yes or no about the accusation, sending evidence or at least giving camps a heads-up is key. At the very minimum, they’ll be able to look out for any potential problems or investigate it themselves, instead of allowing a known predator to be around children and other instructors.
However, it is notable to mention that harassment can also come from established or older members of the community. If you know of any instructors who have similar accusations or credible information regarding sexual misconduct, you should also report that to camps as well.
Safety should be the utmost priority for debate camps, not an afterthought. While sexual harassment training is not a silver bullet, it's a step in the right direction towards fostering a safer and more inclusive camp culture. When camps disregard training, or only give it enough superficial attention to check a box, they risk contributing to the cycles of exclusion that threaten the safety of both debaters and instructors.
Antecol, Heather, and Deborah Cobb-clark. 2003. “Does Sexual Harassment Training Change Attitudes? A View from the Federal Level.” Social Science Quarterly 84, no. 4 (November): 826-842. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.0038-4941.2003.08404001.x.
Kalinoski, Zachary T., Debra Steele-Johnson, Elizabeth J. Peyton, Keith A. Leas, Julie Steinke, and Nathan A. Bowling. 2012. “A meta-analytic evaluation of diversity training outcomes.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 34, no. 8 (November): 1076-1104. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.1839.
Roehling, Mark V., and Jason Huang. 2018. “Sexual harassment training effectiveness: An interdisciplinary review and call for research.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 39, no. 2 (January): 134-150. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.2257.
Roehling, Mark V., Dongyuan Wu, Mahl Geum Choi, and James H. Dulebohn. 2021. “The effects of sexual harassment training on proximal and transfer training outcomes: A meta-analytic investigation.” Personnel Psychology 75, no. 1 (November): 3-31. https://doi.org/10.1111/peps.12492.
“Why Choose an ACA-Accredited Camp?” n.d. American Camp Association. https://www.acacamps.org/campers-families/planning-camp/preparing-camp/fun-safety-aca-accredited-camps-set-standard.
Victory Briefs Institute, The Debate Intensive, National Debate Symposium, Global Debate Symposium, Texas Debate Collective, Debate Drills Summer, DebateLA, Stanford Forensic Institute, Institute of Speech and Debate, Debate Boutique, Classic Debate Camp, and Triumph
Disclosure of Specific Information
I have decided not to name each camp publicly because:
1. Various camps reported they were changing their policies, so I don’t know how much of a useful reference it would be going forward. I want to incentivize people to do their own research, especially as these camps change and grow.
2. It could detract from the overall message of the article because I’m trying to point out more structural issues and common themes than call out specific camps. However, if you are interested in knowing specific information about a camp, especially if you are an under resourced debater, feel free to reach out to me directly.
Was it performed in-house or was an external program used?
Was there a handbook or other reporting process? If so, what did that process look like?
What material (instructor behavior, reporting procedures, bystander training, etc.) did the program go over? Was it debate-specific?
How long was it? Was completion verified?
Was it mandatory for all instructors?
Were you following any specific laws or guidelines?
Is this information listed anywhere on your website?
Anything else you think is pertinent/relevant about your training (or practices you implement you think should be industry standards)
Categorization of Camps
Because of the large amount of inconsistencies in the responses, I had to develop a standardized method to evaluate how camps executed their training. When evaluating contradictory information from camp instructors and directors, I erred on the information instructors gave me. That is because camp administrators have an incentive to promote the safety of their program, whereas instructors are more likely to stay agnostic. I also rounded towards less training with certainty, since even if one instructor got training, if two didn’t, that doesn’t count.