As millions of U.S. children prepare to go off to summer camp, a shooting at one in Texas last week has left some parents like Janill Briones-Lopez with concerns that go far deeper than the normal bumps and bruises kids experience during what has traditionally been a fun-filled respite from the classroom.
While hoping her 7-year-old son will have a safe experience at the free Summer Rising camp run by the New York City Department of Education, Briones-Lopez told ABC News she plans to question camp organizers about staff training on active shooter protocols.
With recent mass shootings at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24 that left 19 students and two teachers dead and an attack on the summer youth camp in Duncanville, Texas, in which an armed suspect was killed in a gunfight with police as campers hid, Briones-Lopez said she can’t help but worry that summer camps “may become targets for these types of attacks.”
“I will be bringing it up at the orientation,” said Briones-Lopez, adding that money-conscious couples like her and her husband depend on the city-run summer camp to provide free care for their children while they are working.
The mother said she has spent the past two-and-a-half years worried about her son contracting COVID-19 and that just as the virus vaccine has allayed some of her worries, the rising epidemic of gun violence across the country has given her something else to be anxious about.
“I am worried about guns and gun violence, but I don’t let myself worry about it on a daily basis because at what point do we shutter ourselves away and become too afraid to go outside?” Briones-Lopez said. “We still have to live our lives.”
‘I was so scared’
One of the country’s top camp directors, Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association, which advises and trains camp staffs nationwide on procedures and protocols for running safe and educational programs, said the shooting last week at the Duncanville Fieldhouse summer camp in Texas left him and others in his nonprofit organization “taken aback.”
Rosenberg told ABC News that in his nearly 30 years as a camp professional, he couldn’t recall a shooting or violent attack occurring at a summer camp in the United States.
In July 2011, self-professed white supremacist Anders Behring Breivik carried out a mass shooting at a summer youth camp in Norway on the tranquil, wooded island of Utoya, northwest of Oslo, killing 69 campers and staff. Breivik attacked the camp on the same day he detonated a car bomb at a government building in Oslo, killing eight people.
He was found guilty of mass murder, causing a fatal explosion and terrorism charges in July 2012 and sentenced to the maximum civilian criminal penalty in Norway of 21 years in prison, with the possibility of extending his sentence for as long as he is deemed a danger to society. In February, a Norwegian court rejected Breivik’s latest bid for parole, finding he still has no remorse for the attack and remains a risk to society.
“This is not unknown, but what happened in Norway hasn’t happened quite like that in our country that I’m aware of in recent times. But when we see our fellow educators in the school system dealing with this now so much, we’ve been preparing for some time around active shooter training,” Rosenberg said.
He added, “I don’t think we can say that any environment today is immune. But all places where our children are being supervised today outside of our homes really need to be prepared for all types of emergencies, period. End of story.”
On June 13, an armed 42-year-old man entered the Duncanville Fieldhouse in the Dallas suburb, where roughly 250 children ranging in age from 4 to 14 were participating in a summer camp, police said. Duncanville police officers rapidly responded to calls of a man with a handgun at the athletic complex as quick-thinking camp staffers ushered the children to safety, authorities said.
Police said the suspect, Brandon Keith Ned, confronted an employee in the facility’s lobby and fired two shots, including one at a classroom full of children he couldn’t get into because the door was locked.
Authorities said officers arrived at the facility within 10 minutes of getting the first call, engaged the suspect in a gunfight and killed him.
A motive for the shooting remains under investigation.
Ned had a felony record, having pleaded guilty to intoxication manslaughter in 2011 and sentenced to two years in prison, according to court records. His wife, LaQuitha Ned, told ABC affiliate station WFAA in Dallas that he was bipolar and that the handgun he allegedly used in the episode belonged to her.
“I didn’t know he had the gun at that time,” LaQuitha Ned said. “He’s not supposed to own a gun. I own a gun. It stays in a lock box with the key hidden.”
The shooting came less than a month after a gunman wielding an AR-15 style rifle he legally purchased after turning 18, killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
While no children were injured in the episode in Duncanville, campers like 8-year-old Trenia Summerville said the incident was terrifying.
“There was gun shooting. I was so scared,” Trenia told WFAA.
‘Summer of resilience’
Rosenberg said a positive outcome of the Duncanville incident is that camp staffers did exactly as they have been trained.
“This is an example of how this program at Duncanville Fieldhouse really did a fine job of executing their plan,” Rosenberg said. “But no one wants to see all that training have to be used in a terrible situation like this. It’s really hard to understand what motivates a person to cause that kind of terror.”
Rosenberg said the American Camp Association has advised directors at the more than 15,000 day and overnight camps expected to operate this summer on active shooter drills and procedures for other emergencies that might arise, including COVID outbreaks and wildfires, for an estimated 26 million campers and 1.2 million employees.
“We work hard to train directors and staff of all these different kinds of camps to think about security concerns and think about medical concerns, think about safety concerns around how programs operate so that everyone can be focused on making sure that everyone is safe, so everyone feels safe at camp and is physically safe at camp,” Rosenberg said.
“Typically, for example, camps have emergency action plans, which have been developed in concert with law enforcement, fire department, EMS and other consultants,” he said. “So, those kinds of things are things that they train on during staff training practice just like how do we manage the health care of all the campers? How do we deal with emotional supports that kids and staffers need during the summer?”
He said this summer is expected to be one of the most important summers “in the history of camp in America.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down summer camps almost entirely in 2020 and severely limited capacity in 2021, Rosenberg said camp directors are ready to open at almost full capacity this summer.
“Hopefully, as many children as possible will have an opportunity to experience more freedom than they’ve had in the past two-and-a-half years, opportunities to be more curious to try new things, to learn new things, make friends. Learn to have conversations in person, face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball, heart-to-heart with their buddies,” Rosenberg said.
“I think of this as a summer of resilience for our whole country, where in spite of COVID, in spite of gun violence, in spite of all the challenges that we have, that we can use this summer as a time for healing, a time for learning, a time for fun and a time for community. And that’s what camp is really all about,” Rosenberg said. “There’s no question everyone’s anxieties are up as a result of what happened in Duncanville and what’s happened in Uvalde and historically. But because of this summer and all the work that we’re going to do at camp, we’re going to see more resilient children as a result.”
He encouraged parents who are hesitant to send their children to camp to question camp directors about safety precautions they’ve taken to make camps safe from intruders, adding that many programs have security guards.
“Camp directors really welcome that. They want to help you understand how they do what they do; all the aspects of how they run their camp. And you should develop a relationship with them just like you develop a relationship with teachers,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg said his message to parents is that safety precautions taken to prevent gun violence “is not going to get in the way of summer camps.”
Gun violence is now leading cause of death among children
Patrick Bresette, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund-Texas, told ABC News he hopes the shooting in Duncanville will not prompt a hardening of camps to the point of militarizing them like some schools. Ohio lawmakers passed a bill on June 1 that would allow teachers and other school staff to carry guns in school safety zones, with little training.
“We’ve spent billions on that kind of approach and not spent enough time making sure people who do harm don’t have access to guns,” Bresette said. “It just doesn’t work. There’s no stat that shows hardening schools is doing nothing more than militarizing them to be honest with you. And I certainly don’t want to see that same thing happen in camps.”
Bresette said he fears while taking precautions and planning for the worst is necessary, he doesn’t want to see camp counselors spending more time training on active shooting drills than on how to provide fun, educational programs for young campers.
“Having been a camp counselor in my high school years, that’s not what I want to focus on,” Bresette said. “I’m there to provide an amazing experience for children and that’s what we should be making sure we’re training the staff for. This is not their job. Their job is to call 911.”
In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report in The New England Journal of Medicine showing that gun violence surpassed automobile accidents as the leading cause of death among children and adolescents ages 1 to 19. The report found that between 2019 and 2020 there was a nearly 30% increase in gun deaths among children.
“But there are multiples of that trauma, who were in that room,” Bresette said of the children who witnessed or heard the gunfire in the incidents in Duncanville and Uvalde. “And I think we’re living with a generation of children, unfortunately, because of the easy access to guns that are meant to kill people, who are traumatized and go to places fearful in the ways they should not be. I think that’s very saddening and the solution to that is to get more control of the guns that are just proliferating in our society.”
In the aftermath of the mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo, New York, where 10 Black people were on May 14 killed in what authorities alleged was a racially motivated attack at a supermarket carried out by a suspect wielding an AR-15 style rifle he also purchased after he turned 18, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators began working on proposals to curb gun violence.
But negotiations apparently stalled after the group announced last week that they had reached an agreement on the framework for gun legislation, including bolstering red flag laws all across the country that allow courts and police departments to temporarily seize firearms from people who present a danger to themselves or to others, and closing the so-called boyfriend loophole, which allows men convicted of assaulting their girlfriends to continue to buy weapons.
The proposals, however, have been met with resistance from gun rights advocates. Over the weekend, the Texas Republican Party formally “rebuked” multiple GOP senators, including one of their own, Sen. John Cornyn, for helping lead the bipartisan negotiations.
“For our organization, we need solutions that control guns,” Bresette said. “Not more security. I mean, in this (Duncanville) case it appears the counselors did what they were trained to do, got kids safe, law enforcement was called and they got there and, thank God, no child was injured in any way. But no one should be able to just pick up a handgun and walk into a summer camp. So, the measure we really want to see are things that control access to guns. I think that that’s the bottom line.”