Chronicle Investigation | A Retreat’s Risky Lessons

It’s just hours into Camp Diversity, a leadership retreat for high school students, but the warmth of the community circle, “Power of Hugs” exercise and hot chocolate is quickly fading.

In a campground hall deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains, 55 teenagers have been ordered to separate by race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. By groups, the children of Silicon Valley engineers and attorneys, house cleaners and gardeners are sent outside, while their peers are instructed to call out every slur and stereotype they know about them.

Some of the Los Altos High students are reluctant, so camp Director Richard Valenzuela urges them on. Middle Easterners are “terrorists — they’re all terrorists!” he shouts. LGBT people are “very defective,” he says, prompting the students to chime in with: “Wrong, sinners, faggot, disgusting.” After students choose “good at math” for Asians, Valenzuela turns to their teachers. “Staff, any others?” They add “tiny vaginas” and “small penises” to the list. Students’ labels of “eat watermelon” and “can’t swim” for African Americans don’t go far enough. “Porch monkeys,” “coons,” the adults offer.

The ugly words, scribbled on large flip charts, confront each group of students as they return. Some break down in sobs. Others tremble in their seats or bury their heads in their hands. “This is going to hurt,” one boy says, pulling a ski cap over his face. “I can’t! I don’t want to say anything! I refuse to look.”

Richard Valenzuela, 72, who directed the Camp Diversity retreat observed by The Chronicle in November 2017, has led Anytown-style camps in the Bay Area and beyond for more than four decades. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

Richard Valenzuela, 72, who directed the Camp Diversity retreat observed by The Chronicle in November 2017, has led Anytown-style camps in the Bay Area and beyond for more than four decades. (Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

But Valenzuela presses on, prodding the shaken teens to share any feelings the exercise has provoked. A series of agonized confessions ensues: stories of a sibling’s rape, an alcoholic parent, a lesbian rejected by her family.

Over four long days and nights, Valenzuela, aided by teachers with just 90 minutes of training for the camp, will lead the unsuspecting youth through a series of such painful exercises. Latino students will be ordered to clean up after whites and ushered into restrooms labeled “No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed.” Jewish students will be pinned with yellow stars and taunted about the Holocaust. Some teens will be called “retards” and slapped on the back of the head. And more than once, students will be encouraged to reveal whether they have contemplated suicide.

For decades, tens of thousands of students across the country have gone through versions of these exercises at retreats long known as Camp Anytown. The Anytown retreats, run by a loose network of nonprofit social justice groups, say they instill leadership and build empathy by prompting young people to confront difficult issues such as racism and sexism in a safe setting far from home and school. Some former participants recall their camp experience as transformative.

Students from three high schools in low-income communities in East Palo Alto and San Jose listen during an exercise at Camp Everytown last fall. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

Students from three high schools in low-income communities in East Palo Alto and San Jose listen during an exercise at Camp Everytown last fall. (Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

But a Chronicle investigation shows that many of the camps’ “experiential learning” methods, however well intended, are ethically suspect at best and, at worst, reckless and potentially harmful for some young people. The programs are unsupported by research, misguided about the safe handling of trauma, and generally lack adequate on-site mental health care.

Some camps have a social worker or trained counselor on hand. But mostly they rely on camp staff, volunteers and teachers with little expertise to care for distraught students, such as two teens at Camp Diversity who were so overcome they collapsed.

Anytown retreats have endured with a noteworthy longevity, while maintaining a marked secrecy about their programming. At many camps, students are encouraged to keep the exercises a secret, so they don’t ruin the surprise for the next group.

For this report, Chronicle journalists attended two four-day camps for South Bay high school students held in Felton and Boulder Creek in Santa Cruz County, and interviewed directors, counselors and students from Anytown camps in multiple states. We consulted with more than 20 experts in education, psychiatry, psychology, social science, youth advocacy and public policy who reviewed the camps’ practices. Presented with detailed descriptions and video footage, all but one found their methods indefensible, some characterizing segments of the program as “highly unethical” and “educational malpractice.”

Since The Chronicle began its inquiries, Valenzuela has said he will retire. The Mountain View Los Altos High School District defended Camp Diversity and its teachers’ preparedness, noting it received few complaints, but a district spokeswoman said recently that after 14 years, Los Altos High students will no longer attend such residential retreats.

Still, dozens of similar retreats in the Bay Area and across the country are expected to continue as planned.

Princeton University psychology Professor Betsy Levy Paluck, who has reviewed nearly 1,000 anti-prejudice programs nationwide, said there is no evidence to support the camps’ techniques and called portions of the programming “a hellscape with literally no imagined positive.”

“It’s ethically objectionable to unearth students’ own pain and to put it on display for others,” she said.

Camp directors see their actions differently. They say grappling with injustice in an in-depth way necessarily requires some discomfort. And they argue that the difficult experiences are mitigated by the end of camp, through discussions and other group activities that bring students together.

“We tell the kids we’re going to be opening up some wounds here, but we’re going to open the wounds, clean out the infection, and then allow that to heal,” said Pat Mitchell, former director of Silicon Valley Faces, a nonprofit that has run camps, mostly led by Valenzuela, for two decades. “It’s transformational. As camp director, I would always tell people: ‘It’s really quite simple. It’s magic is what it is.’”


Anytown camps date to the 1950s. They originated with the now-defunct National Conference of Christians and Jews, a coalition formed nearly a century ago to combat religious bigotry. When that organization dissolved in 2005, its chapters formed independent nonprofits, some of which remain connected through a group called the National Federation for Just Communities.

Today, the retreats for students ages 14 to 18 are held in dozens of states and last three to eight days. The cost for each camper ranges from $300 in the Bay Area to $1,300 in St. Louis. Some students pay their own way, but typically costs are covered by donations, grants and school funds.

While each camp’s programming varies, all rely on elements of “experiential learning” — putting students through an immersive activity, then “debriefing” in group settings. Students are told what they share will be kept confidential, unless they reveal they are in harm’s way or they pose a danger to themselves or others. In those cases, child welfare authorities must be notified.

The retreats all include sessions devoted to developing social justice action plans that students can take back to school. In some regions, including the South Bay, nonprofit groups work year-round with campus clubs and campaigns conceived at camp.

Portions of each day can be lighthearted and joyful, with early morning hikes and group sing-alongs. Some students feel relief at opening up for the first time about issues such as being gay, having a parent in jail, or struggling with depression. Many connect with fellow students they might otherwise never get to know.

Claire Billman, a recent Palo Alto High School graduate, said she appreciated the program she attended in 2015, called Camp Unity, for giving her greater understanding of her African American and Latino classmates. “It opened me up to the idea of privilege that I had always been aware of,” said Billman, who is white. “But it brought a narrative to it and made me physically see it.”

Still, such bonding is often hard-earned.

Toward the end of a camp called NCCJ Anytown, a six-day retreat for students in Massachusetts and Connecticut, the meal routine suddenly shifts. White male students are driven to breakfast in golf carts, while all others have to walk. In the cafeteria, white students are seated at tables laid out restaurant-style; others lack even chairs. Latinos or African Americans, among them teens whose parents clean houses for a living, are told to clean up after white students.

Anytown exercises re-enacting segregation and discrimination often last for hours, until students demand they end.

Camp directors say such methods sound harsh out of context, but they are actually empowering; treating students the way society treats them so they are inspired to stand up to discrimination. For some students, the exercises’ message was less clear.

“I felt like if we didn’t clean, we’d get in trouble, and I felt very pressured,” said Christopher Morales, then 15, a former NCCJ Anytown camper. “Depending on what race you were, they treated you on a scale from very kind all the way to as if you weren’t even human.”

After the segregated breakfast, Ameen Colon and other students of Middle Eastern backgrounds were given water guns, clay and electric cords. “I’m pretty sure it was to make a bomb,” Colon, then 16, said. “I think they were trying to give us a message about how people interpret us, that people see us as terrorists. It was pretty upsetting.”

Yet like some other students interviewed, Colon described mixed feelings about his experience. He plans to return as a counselor because he believes in the camp’s goals. “Yes, it was abusive and very unnerving,” he said. “But I think they’re doing it for the greater good.”

Over the decades, the camps’ unusual methods have had limited outside review. There has been no independent research to determine whether the programs are safe or effective, or how students fare emotionally after camp, retreat directors concede. They point instead to overwhelmingly positive surveys of campers, who are asked to rate camp through answers to questions such as: Do you try to understand what other people feel and think; do you tell the truth; is it important to make friends with people who have different social identities?

Prudence Carter, dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, criticized the camps’ lack of reliable data and focus on personal trauma. “If you don’t have any actual evidence that this is going to empower versus disempower the kids who’ve experienced trauma, if you don’t have mental health professionals there, how do you know you are helping kids?” she said. “Where is the psychological theory and research behind it? If there is none, this is a really risky and seriously problematic intervention.”


The bespectacled, grandfatherly looking Valenzuela, 72, is considered Anytown’s most prolific and veteran facilitator. A lifelong Phoenix resident, he attended his first camp as a volunteer in 1965 soon after graduating high school. He went on to teach race relations in the military and earn a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University, then set out to spread the Anytown program across the country. Over the years, the exercises at Anytown camps grew to include some borrowed from other organizations, and some Valenzuela says he invented.

He estimates that over four decades he has led at least 500 camps in 15 states. For 18 years he worked at Silicon Valley Faces and its parent organization, before being let go in 2015 because of a combination of complaints and an unwillingness to change and adapt, according to his former employer. Since then he has run camps independently, most recently for high schools in Los Altos and Palo Alto.

Valenzuela’s early inspiration was Jane Elliott, an elementary school teacher in Iowa. In 1968, after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, she divided her all-white class into groups with brown eyes and blue eyes, and told the children: “This is a fact. Blue-eyed people are better than brown-eyed people.” Her widely publicized experiment made some children “nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders in the space of 15 minutes,” she would later report.

Valenzuela can be jolly and congenial. He is quick to tear up and often evokes his grandchildren. But during camp, his persona shifts as he employs what h e calls “instigative learning.”

In an exercise designed to elicit empathy for people with physical disabilities, for example, he has some students eat lunch blindfolded or with one arm bound at their sides. He then roams the cafeteria, slapping the “disabled” students on the back of the head and shouting, “You retard!”

“My role is the antagonizer, and so I want to make sure that everybody gets the maximum impact from the disability activity in a very short time,” he said. “I hit the ‘blind’ people in the back of the head so they can feel how it is to be harassed, how it feels to be violated.”

At the Camp Diversity retreat observed by The Chronicle, many campers already knew the challenges. The previous evening, six students had stood before the others in the lodge and described living with their disabilities, including severe arthritis, extreme anxiety and depression leading to suicidal thoughts. A boy with autism said he had not taken his medications for three days since arriving at camp.

In a segregation exercise carried out during lunch, Valenzuela separated students by race and ethnicity and shouted directions. “White group, always go first!” he ordered. “You may leave your plates, your cups, your silverware and glasses at the table because the brown, the Mexican brown group, will clean up — because they’re good at it.”

“Half-breeds!” he hissed at the biracial group. “You’re a bunch of mistakes aren’t you?” White students were dismissed as “privileged and racist supremacists.” Jewish students, tagged with yellow stars, were called “Christ killers.”

“You Jews waiting for the train or what?” Valenzuela shouted at them. “That’s what happened in the Holocaust, nobody cared, nobody did anything.”

He made certain all the students went to restrooms with signs posted on the stalls that read: “Whites Only,” “Colored Only” and “No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed.”


  • Stereotypes and slurs for Latinos are written on a flip chart during an exercise at Camp Everytown. African Americans, Asian Americans, LGBT students and members of other groups are confronted with such terms in what is meant to be an empathy-building exercise.

    Stereotypes and slurs for Latinos are written on a flip chart during an exercise at Camp Everytown. African Americans, Asian Americans, LGBT students and members of other groups are confronted with such terms in what is meant to be an empathy-building exercise.

    (Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

  • Cesar Becerra (left), 17, and Wendy Aguirre, 15, portray federal immigration agents during a skit in which they were to reflect aspects of their culture for other students at Camp Everytown.

    Cesar Becerra (left), 17, and Wendy Aguirre, 15, portray federal immigration agents during a skit in which they were to reflect aspects of their culture for other students at Camp Everytown.

    (Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

A few students, designated as “loners,” were instructed not to speak to anyone else. During the exercise, as he walked by, Valenzuela slapped them on the back of the head, calling them “frickin’ loner!”

Valenzuela powers through the exercises, even when some students have become emotionally derailed. At one morning meeting, teachers staffing the camp discussed five students of particular concern — one who said she didn’t get much sleep “because she was in so much pain,” and another described as “really uncomfortable and triggered.”

Yet in the debriefing session after the disability activity, Valenzuela continued prodding the campers. “Did any of you start feeling a little depressed? A little anxiety?” he asked. “Think of having this for the rest of your life, not being able to eat and being dependent. A lot of people get depressed, and eventually a lot of them commit suicide. The suicide rate is real high for, especially, teenagers who become disabled.”

In a recent emailed response to questions from The Chronicle, Mountain View Los Altos High School District spokeswoman Cynthia Greaves stated that the district “was unaware” of some of Valenzuela’s actions that were documented by a reporter. She downplayed Valenzuela’s striking of students as “tapping,” as in a “duck-duck-goose” circle exercise. And she termed two students seen collapsing as “sitting abruptly.”

Greaves emphasized that “our school district would not tolerate the harm or threat of harm to a student,” and said the district saw no need for any student to receive “immediate therapeutic services or safety assessment” at the camp. Had there been the need, she said, students would have been “referred back to their parents.”

Experts, however, expressed shock at the video of students being struck by Valenzuela. Stanford University law Professor William Koski said that without informed consent from the students and their parents, “tactics designed to create emotional or even physical discomfort or pain” raise the specter of “legally actionable conduct.” Koski, who has represented hundreds of Bay Area schoolchildren in disability matters, said the legal consequences of hitting minors could be greater “if it results in emotional or physical damage.”

Concerns about Valenzuela are shared by those who have watched him in action. Palo Alto High School history teacher Jack Bungarden said that at a camp he staffed last year, Valenzuela’s “aggressive” approach led to “a steady degradation of language, so at the end of an exercise there was a board full of horrific things. I was just cringing. It was brutal.” Later that night, Bungarden asked his colleagues: “What the hell just happened? Explain to me why this process was necessary.”


Richard Valenzuela, the longtime facilitator of retreats like Camp Diversity, leads a staff training session at Los Altos High School ahead of a retreat in Boulder Creek. Teachers received 90 minutes of training before camp. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

Richard Valenzuela, the longtime facilitator of retreats like Camp Diversity, leads a staff training session at Los Altos High School ahead of a retreat in Boulder Creek. Teachers received 90 minutes of training before camp. (Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Mental health clinicians say that dealing with their clients’ disclosure of trauma is the most delicate aspect of their work. It can be transformative, they said, but even in treatment, opening up too fast or in the wrong setting can be “triggering,” a dangerous state that can lead to greater emotional pain.

Yet at many Anytown camps, teasing out young people’s pain is the goal, in sessions former Silicon Valley Faces Director Mitchell described as “poking the bear.” Anytown Las Vegas Director Rico Ocampo describes the method as asking students to be as vulnerable as possible to create a “domino effect.”

“Throughout the camp, we see youth really break down, and sometimes it takes the whole time for them to break down,” said Ocampo, whose camp specifically recruits homeless and foster youth. “We pound it very hard.”

The debriefs done after each exercise, where students share in groups how the exercise made them feel, can also be a risky undertaking, experts say. The federal government’s National Center for PTSD identifies such psychological debriefing in the wake of trauma as “ineffective” at best and, at worst, “possibly harmful.”

At Camp Diversity, gender night — an exercise at most camps nationwide — put the program’s debriefing methods to the test.

“There’s going to be a lot that comes up, so just be prepared to listen and let people cry,” Willie Sims advised his fellow teachers in a morning staff meeting. Sims, a Los Altos High School instructional aide, had attended camp before and helped run the exercises. “No need to be too cautious,” Valenzuela added. “Let them go.”

Valenzuela told the students that the exercise was a way to improve male-female relations. After being separated, girls and boys were told to write down and rank gender stereotypes to present to each other. Amid gasps, one of the younger boys read their list to the girls, ticking off the tallies for “tramps,” “dogs” and “free maids.” “Three people voted for ‘sluts,’ two people voted for ‘hos,’ eight people voted for ‘meat-beaters,’” he said hesitantly.

Valenzuela offered another suggestion: “No means yes, and yes means harder.”

The exercise would continue for more than three hours. During the debriefing, one girl recounted a sibling’s suicide attempt. Another described being sexually assaulted by a stranger. A boy fell to the floor in heaving sobs. One of the girls fell to the ground next, after Sims instructed them to “please stand if you’ve ever been hit by a man.”

After the exercise ended, at the end of a 15-hour day, teachers scrambled to pair up with distraught students. But in a huddle on the rain-slicked basketball court, Sims reassured his fellow teachers. Go back to the cabins and continue the conversation with students by asking “probing” questions, he said. “You don’t want to leave them hanging with this emotion. This is what happens every time — it’s cool, it’s cool, it’s cool. We got this, trust me.”

Alex Escobar, 17,  plays piano inside the cafeteria during a break at Camp Everytown. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

Alex Escobar, 17, plays piano inside the cafeteria during a break at Camp Everytown. (Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Not all those who are assigned or volunteer to staff a camp can reconcile its aims with its methods. Over the years, some Bay Area teachers have been unnerved by the program.

“There’s a sense of ‘trust the process.’ You’re told that there’s this institutional memory and you have to buy into it,” said Mountain View High School English teacher Steve Kahl. “It’s portrayed as being God’s gift to the school community. The kids are trusting us, and the parents are trusting us, and the teachers think there must be some research backing it.”

Kahl, who volunteered for a camp in 2013, said he had serious doubts during training, but colleagues encouraged him to ride it out. They were teachers he felt had deep regard for students and the best of intentions. But even as a veteran educator with graduate school training in counseling, Kahl felt ill-equipped as he led group discussions that “aggravated issues for students that we had no business aggravating.”

“We were potentially dredging up issues for students that we were not prepared to follow up with — and that worried me a lot,” he said. “It struck me as pseudo-therapy for the masses, without anyone having a diagnosis and no one supervising who is clinically authorized to do anything that’s therapeutic.”


Over two decades, about 10,000 local high school students have attended another camp observed by The Chronicle, Camp Everytown. From fiscal years 2016 to 2018, 1,361 students from 31 South Bay high schools have gone through the four-day program, with Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto paying $20,000 for one camp.

The 60 students at the Camp Everytown retreat observed last fall did not come from well-off Los Altos or Palo Alto, but from three charter high schools in some of the region’s most impoverished communities in East Palo Alto and San Jose. It was a fact the teens were reminded of numerous times.

“This for many of you is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Tuyen Fiack, Silicon Valley Faces’ current executive director, told them. “The reason you are here is because somebody at your school decided you had leadership potential. Our cost for each of you is $500. How many of you paid? None of you. That’s why we really want you to be present, because it’s a privilege to be here.”

Seventeen-year-old Cesar Becerra (far left) comforts Diana Fernanda, 17,  during the campfire and final evening of Camp Everytown in Boulder Creek. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

Seventeen-year-old Cesar Becerra (far left) comforts Diana Fernanda, 17, during the campfire and final evening of Camp Everytown in Boulder Creek. (Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

For many of the students, it was their first time at overnight camp. Even without Valezuela present, their routine would echo that of Los Altos High’s Camp Diversity: long days and nights of intense sessions leading to tears and confessions, interposed with icebreaker games and rousing camp cheers. Throughout the four days, kids curled up together in fleece blankets to comfort each other.

In group sessions, immigrant students recounted harrowing border crossings and detentions. African American and Latino youth described being profiled in restaurants and harassed by police. In Camp Everytown’s “Game of Life” exercise, they would relive those experiences. Their teachers, wearing mock police uniforms, planted spoons on them to “frame” them for drug possession and “arrested” them for traveling without papers. A circle of chairs served as a jail.

Meeting each morning to discuss the day’s activities, camp staff and teachers took note of teens they saw showing signs of distress, labeling them by level of concern as “pink flags” and “red flags.” Lead facilitator Ken Naranja urged them to keep their discussions brief: a one-sentence description of the student, the issue, and a decision on who would follow up.

The list of flagged students grew each day, reaching eight by the last day. Gender night had been particularly tough on many, camp staff reported. After lights-out, camp counselors thought it would be fun to broadcast horror stories and chainsaw noises on their cell phones. One teacher reported that had girls in her cabin in tears all over again.

Volunteer staffer Michelle Tran described a student bunking near her who needed someone to monitor her. The girl had experienced “flashbacks” about abuse, she said. Tran’s suggestion: “When she gets triggered, have her pet a horse or something.”

Fiack, who joined Faces two years ago after a lengthy business career, insisted she would not be involved with Everytown camps if there were any evidence that her program caused more harm than good. And if students have further needs after camp, she said, they are referred to the counseling help available at their schools.

But she is quick to note: “We are not a mental health organization and we don’t say that we are a mental health organization. All we’re doing at camp is making sure there’s a safe space to be heard.”

High school student Carmel Evans was 18 and had bouts of depression before attending Camp Everytown in Boulder Creek in October 2017. She had a habit of cutting her arms when under emotional pressure. She cut herself as many as nine times during the four days she was at the camp. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

High school student Carmel Evans was 18 and had bouts of depression before attending Camp Everytown in Boulder Creek in October 2017. She had a habit of cutting her arms when under emotional pressure. She cut herself as many as nine times during the four days she was at the camp. (Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Among those selected for the fall Everytown camp was Carmel Evans, a soft-spoken 18-year-old who attended a program for students with emotional disturbance at Andrew P. Hill High School in San Jose. Suffering from depression, she’d had difficulty getting out of bed in the weeks before it began.

Her mother, Genese Evans, didn’t know much about the camp before her daughter left. “I didn’t even know where it was to be honest,” she said, and faults herself for not being better informed. “I figured it was for school so it couldn’t be all bad.”

After camp, her mother said, “It was really good when she first came back. She was happy and excited, she was telling me about her friends that were there.” But she got the impression that some “trying and challenging” things there had pushed Carmel “beyond her limit.”

In interviews during camp and afterward, Carmel said she had relished the intense experience and closeness her group had shared. Shortly after camp, she posted on Instagram that the experience was “amazing” and she hoped to remain as brave as she’d been there.

But she’d also felt upended.

Carmel Evans (left), 18,  sits outside a group discussion during a Camp Everytown exercise. Some of the exercises during the four-day retreat in Boulder Creek pushed Carmel “beyond her limit,” her mother would later say. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

Carmel Evans (left), 18, sits outside a group discussion during a Camp Everytown exercise. Some of the exercises during the four-day retreat in Boulder Creek pushed Carmel “beyond her limit,” her mother would later say. (Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Being one of few African American and biracial kids in the stereotyping exercise “felt really nerve-racking and unsettling,” she said. The list of slurs “made me feel like — I guess not necessarily hopeless, but kind of like, what’s the point, you know? If people believe this about me, what is to stop me from believing it about myself?”

When other campers would gather as a large group to lighten the mood after the intensive exercises, Carmel would sneak back to her cabin alone. She had a history of making superficial cuts on her arms with various sharp objects, a desperate attempt to find emotional relief. The need grew worse at camp, she said, and she cut herself as many as nine times over its four days. She told a teacher at the camp about harming herself and checked in with her social worker back at school.

“I was disappointed in myself,” she said. “Why am I leaving the experience? I left, and I came back and I felt sad. I think it was because they were all happy and singing and having their community — and I went off to slice my skin.”


Carmel Evans, 18, who attended the Camp Everytown fall retreat for South Bay high school students, watches television in her room back home in San Jose. Carmel found the intense camp experiences both uplifting and triggering. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

Carmel Evans, 18, who attended the Camp Everytown fall retreat for South Bay high school students, watches television in her room back home in San Jose. Carmel found the intense camp experiences both uplifting and triggering. (Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

On the third day at Camp Everytown, students stood facing each other for the Family Line. A facilitator somberly prompted them to step forward if they identified with the statement being read.

Have you ever been in foster care?

Have you been affected by alcoholism or drug addiction?

Have you had a family member in jail or prison?

Almost every teen stepped forward to another prompt: “Please take a step forward if you have ever considered suicide.”

Questioning students about suicidal thoughts is a long-standing practice at Camp Everytown. Staff members say it shows students they are not alone and offers them peer support. They maintain they are aware of no negative aftereffects of such exercises.

But mental health practitioners called the technique dangerously misguided, particularly with little or no clinical expertise on hand.

Child psychiatrist Thomas Tarshis, who directs mental health clinics for Bay Area teens, said his clinicians use a similar type of prompting exercise in intensive outpatient programs. But the questions, aimed at bringing teens and their parents together, focus on things like hobbies and movies.

“You would never ask a question like, ‘Have you ever thought about killing yourself?’” he said. “It’s not healthy to ask loaded mental health questions in large group settings, or any questions about rape or domestic violence. We would not ask such loaded questions even in a room filled with mental health professionals.”

Tammy Mendoza, 14, rests her head on another student’s shoulder during an exercise at Camp Everytown last fall. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

Tammy Mendoza, 14, rests her head on another student’s shoulder during an exercise at Camp Everytown last fall. (Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Yet for years, Bay Area schools have sent students to Anytown camps whose exercises are known to be triggering, even in the most delicate of times. Palo Alto and Henry M. Gunn high schools, for example, continued sending students to Camp Everytown through a multiyear stretch beginning in 2009, when nine former, current or incoming students died by suicide, a disturbing cluster that attracted national attention.

In cases of self-harm and suicide, minimizing risk of contagion is key, according to suicide-prevention groups and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Tool kits for schools confronting mental health crises call for suicide issues to be handled by professionals trained to identify risk factors and safely handle follow-up care.

“Asking young people — especially in a group like that — to publicly acknowledge that they’ve had suicidal ideation or maybe even attempts, I don’t know what that does to the other kids in the room,” said Jack Glaser, social psychologist and UC Berkeley public policy professor.

Glaser, who has served on Berkeley’s Committee for Protection of Human Subjects, which reviews research proposals, said such panels are reluctant to approve studies that involve any questions about suicide unless there’s a clinician available 24 hours a day to respond when the answer is yes.

Of the Everytown campers, he said: “If they see that 30 to 40 percent are stepping forward, they could be asking: ‘Why haven’t I thought about suicide?’”


There are signs that some camp directors are rethinking their programming. At a 2017 conference in Santa Barbara organized by the National Federation of Just Communities, members shared concerns about outdated curriculum, school counselors sending students to camp to be “fixed,” and the need for more mental health professionals.

Camps for students in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties ended Hunger Banquets, a concept originally developed by the charity Oxfam International. The exercise would randomly sort kids into into groups by “class,” serving the upper class a nicely prepared chicken meal, while the lower class got bread, rice and water. Among those assigned to the lower class were teens who had known hunger in their own lives.

In Coming Out Star, an exercise once used at camps run by Anytown St. Louis, students are given stars of varying colors and told they are gay. One group is told their community has reacted to them with hatred; no one speaks to them; they’ve become depressed and dependent on alcohol and drugs. Instructed to tear up their stars, according to scripts of the exercise, they are told: “You’re now a part of the 40 percent of suicide victims who are LGBT.”

Director David Martineau said the exercise was halted as “way too triggering” and “overly traumatic.”

Jarrod Schwartz, who oversees the Just Communities camp held for students from California’s Central Coast since 2003, said his program aims to broadly explore social injustice, rather than mine teens’ individual pain. His volunteer camp staffers also receive 60 hours of training, far more than those at most camps.

“If things are being done responsibly, they shouldn’t be done to trigger emotions or to artificially create them,” Schwartz said. “You don’t teach about abuse by abusing people, and you don’t need to hurt people to learn about things in our world that are harmful.”

Schwartz said his agency has decided not to hold its residential camp this summer because of “an unprecedented level of fear and anxiety” among LGBT groups, immigrants and students of color — a level of distress he says Just Communities does not have the skill and expertise to safely manage with its current resources.

But directors of other camps, including Camp Everytown, have no plans to alter future camps. Silicon Valley Faces held a fundraiser in May for its coming season of Camp Everytown. And on the day before last fall’s camp ended, the program’s complete confidence was on full display.

With students seated in a circle, camp staff skipped and danced around them. “Firework,” Katy Perry’s anthem of encouragement to teens who feel disconnected, blared on loudspeakers as camp facilitator Naranja shouted over the music.

“I’ve seen this camp so many times, and every time I believe it’s a miracle,” he said. “Be part of that miracle!”


  • Jessica Vasquez Aguilar, 14, doodles on a piece of paper during an exercise at Camp Everytown.

    Jessica Vasquez Aguilar, 14, doodles on a piece of paper during an exercise at Camp Everytown.

    (Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

  • A stuffed animal rests on a students suit case at Camp Everytown.

    A stuffed animal rests on a students suit case at Camp Everytown.

    (Gabrielle Lurie, The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Karen de Sá is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: kdesa@sfchronicle.com

 

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Contact us

Email The Chronicle’s Investigative Team: iteam@sfchronicle.com. To contact us confidentially: https://newstips.sfchronicle.com

How we reported this story

The Chronicle began examining Anytown camps late last year, on a tip from a family member. Both my children attended Anytown camps during high school in the early to mid-2000s, a long-standing tradition for many students in our region of the Bay Area, but I’d heard little about their experiences. Last spring, after my adult daughter was invited back as a counselor, she shared her impressions with me.

In October, Chronicle photographer Gabrielle Lurie and I attended Camp Everytown in Boulder Creek. The next month, I attended a similar retreat called Camp Diversity in nearby Felton (Santa Cruz County). In both instances, gaining access involved difficult negotiations.

After we attended the retreats, we compiled a written overview of the program and a selection of video footage. We showed the material and sought feedback from 28 experts specializing in education, psychiatry, psychology, social science, youth advocacy, disability rights and public policy. We also interviewed 35 current and former campers and in some instances their parents, as well as 39 camp and school staff members.

— Karen de Sá

This article originally appeared here via Google News