Bright as a penny, the brand-new Boy Scout, in his crisp new Scout uniform, came to his first Troop meeting. He had just graduated from his Cub Scout Pack, where he had earned his Arrow of Light, now proudly sewn by his mom to the bottom of his left shirt pocket. And he was ready. Between his last Pack meeting and now, he’d studied hard from the Scout Handbook he’d bought while he was still a Bear Cub, and he was ready to earn the rank of Tenderfoot. He joined a Patrol that night, learned their yell, knew who his new Troop’s leaders were. He already knew what to do in emergencies at home and community, knew about his country’s Flag and Flag etiquette, remembered his basic First Aid (he’d learned it as a Cub), knew what he needed to know about Scoutcraft, knew the Scout Oath and Law, Motto and Slogan, sign and handshake and salute by heart. He had practiced, and knew he could use his own words to describe the meaning of the Oath, Law, Motto and Slogan of Boy Scouting. This last one was hard, because the words describing these in his Handbook were so efficiently perfect that coming up with original descriptions that didn’t merely regurgitate his Handbook’s words wasn’t easy. But he’d done it. And he knew that now, even though this was near the end of only his first real Troop meeting, he was ready. He asked his Scoutmaster to review him Tenderfoot.
The review was conducted jointly by his Scoutmaster, Mr. B and the Troop’s Committee Chairman, Mr. W.
Although this wasn’t what he’d read about in his Handbook, he didn’t question it – These are grown men, and I’m just a boy, he thought. They’re surely wiser than I, so this must be OK. But, instead of a “conversation” he found himself in an intensive interrogation—there was no other word more appropriate to describe it. Despite feeling like he was being put under a microscope, the boy was ready to answer every question and show he knew the work. After saying the Scout Oath, Law, Motto and Slogan, he was told to recite their meanings. Following what the requirement said, the boy began to describe in his own words the meaning of each. He began with “Trustworthy,” the first point of the Scout Law. The men cut him short. “That’s not what it says in the Handbook,” they admonished. “We want to hear you recite the definition, from the Handbook.” “But the Handbook says, ‘Describe in your own words…’,” the boy replied, with now some panic in his voice. “Well, son, maybe that’s what it says, but in this Troop, we expect every Scout to know the definitions exactly,” they replied. “We’re sorry to tell you you’ve failed. When you know what you’re supposed to know, come back to us and we’ll test you again.”
Leaving the Troop meeting holding back his tears of disappointment, embarrassment and confusion as best he could, and not very successfully, the boy’s mind raced. At first, he wanted to quit, to run away, to just bury his uniform in his back yard. It took a while, but eventually he decided he wasn’t a quitter. So he did memorize the definitions, and the following week he recited them flawlessly. He’d passed, Mr. B and Mr. W told him. He’d get his Tenderfoot badge at the next meeting. He never got it; not from that Troop. In the week in between, he’d found another Troop in town, and joined them, instead. That’s where he re-earned his Tenderfoot badge, and ultimately Eagle.
Years later, this Scout still wonders what could have been going through the minds of these two grown men, that they’d do this to a little boy barely eleven years old. So, my column this month answers just one letter, because it seems that the wrong-headed, mean-spirited Mr. B and Mr. W haven’t died – they continue to reappear in more devious forms.
I’m a Commissioner in the Central New Jersey area, and I have two questions:
1. I have a Troop that keeps trying to impose what seem like additional requirements for Star, Life and Eagle—all of which they justify as showing Scout spirit, being active in the Troop, or leadership. For example, they require a Scout to lead one campout and two Troop meetings in order to advance. They make their Scouts fill out forms listing the Troop activities in which they’ve participated, and how they demonstrated leadership at six of those. If they don’t do this, they aren’t allowed to have a Scoutmaster conference. More, they insist that the Scout “do a good job” in the leadership position they hold, but they don’t define what “a good job” is. They also require Scouts to attend a minimum number of campouts (they won’t reveal to me what the number is) in order to meet the “active in your Patrol and Troop” requirement. They claim to have “high standards” for all requirements, and they justify this with the notion that “it wouldn’t be fair to those Scouts who excel if every Scout is allowed to advance just by meeting the ‘minimal’ requirements.” I’ve tried to tell them that they can’t impose “higher” standards than the BSA itself, but they continue to ignore this point-of-view, referring to the BSA as providing “minimal requirements” and “guidelines.”
2. This same Troop also has a group of adults who sit on Boards of Review. Nearly all of them have no BSA training. They believe that the purpose of a Board of Review is to test the Scout, to be sure he’s ready to advance. They don’t accept the idea that a Scout has met the requirements if he’s had a Scoutmaster’s Conference and the requirements have been signed off by the Scoutmaster. If, at his Board of Review, the Scout doesn’t speak much, or forgets a word or two of the Scout Oath or Law (possible nervousness is not given consideration), or fails to wear a complete uniform, or hasn’t done what the Board deems “a good job” in his leadership position, or doesn’t show “enough” leadership, they’ll “fail” him.
The leaders and other adults in this Troop keep insisting that they’re not really adding to rank requirements; they just have “higher expectations” of how requirements are fulfilled. What they’re now starting to work on is formalizing these unwritten “expectations” into Troop policy. The Troop Committee Chair is in process of creating a subcommittee just for this purpose.
No matter how I try to tell them that these “expectations” of theirs are in reality additional requirements, which they can’t do, their consistent and across-the-board denial is, “No, these are just our expectations”. They follow this with the affirmation that BSA National policies are “just guidelines,” and that they have the right to impose their own Troop expectations.
So how do I convince them that their expectations are a fiction, and that they’re really additional requirements, and that this isn’t right, before the Scouts and their parents begin a general walk-out (which, I’m learning, is becoming more and more imminent)?
Let’s take this in the same order as you’ve asked the questions. But first, I want you to do two things: Buy yourself a copy of Publication 33088C – ADVANCEMENT COMMITTEE POLICIES AND PROCEDURES – and contact with your District or Council Advancement Chairperson. As a Commissioner, you’ll need both of these important resources to help this Troop get itself pointing toward True North again. The third thing you can do, if you choose, is show them your message to me, and this reply. Now, let’s go to work…
In the first place, you and I both know that this Troop knows it’s disguising additional requirements as “expectations.” They’re playing a semantic game, and it has to stop. And don’t for a minute think they don’t know they’re playing a language game here. Here are the points you’re ultimately going to have to address head-on with them:
– A BSA policy is just that: A POLICY. It’s not a guideline, or it would be called a guideline. It’s not a suggestion or it would be called a suggestion. So, let’s call what’s going on in this Troop what it is: It is a violation of explicit national policy.
– The giveaway to this, and their game-playing, is their own reference to BSA advancement requirements as “minimal.” The instant they do that, they’re in the requirement arena and not in either the guideline or expectation arena. They know this. They need to be told that you know it, too. And, most of all, the parents need to know this, too.
– The moment “numbers” are attached to requirements that have none (deliberately, I might add!), such as “leadership at six meetings” or “one campout” or “two meetings” the stated requirements are being added to, and this is a violation. Whether the “numbers” are formal or informal, written or unwritten, is irrelevant. It’s a violation, period.
– Further, the moment a “number” is assigned to what’s considered “active” participation, it’s violating national policy.
– They fail to understand that it is the responsibility of the TROOP and the SCOUTMASTER to insure that leadership skills are being taught, learned, and practiced. It’s the Scoutmaster’s responsibility to provide training in leadership to ALL Scouts and then provide opportunities to demonstrate leadership. Certain ranks require very specific leadership tenure; others do not. Where the requirement is present for the rank, it should be adhered to; where it’s not, it can’t be imposed arbitrarily.
– Further regarding leadership, if the Board of Review deems the Scout’s leadership “inadequate” then their job is to discuss this with the Scoutmaster; not with the Scout. The Scout, it must be presumed, is “doing his best” to use the leadership skills he has been taught by his Scoutmaster, and if these are lacking then it is the Scoutmaster who is to blame; not the Scout, and the Scout cannot and should not be penalized for the failure of the Scoutmaster to deliver what he’s supposed to.
– The uniform thing is not wrong, including the socks. This does teach the Scout that there is only one complete and correct uniform, just as there is elsewhere. Think of it this way: If a traveling soccer player showed up for a game with his team shorts but a regular tee-shirt top and sneakers instead of cleats, would the coach play him? Of course not! Neither should Scouting, especially for something as important as a board of review. BUT, here’s where we get creative… I’ve had this situation myself, as a member of a Board. I’ve simply said to the Scout, “I don’t see a candidate for First Class here. He needs Scout socks. Why don’t we wait about five minutes or so, and let’s see if a candidate shows up.” The Scout, getting the message pretty quickly, heads back to the Troop meeting and swaps socks with a buddy, and then comes back to the board, proudly displaying his socks. All’s well when it’s treated with good humor.
– Scouts are absolutely not re-tested in Boards of Review. The BSA Advancement Policies specifically state, for example, that there are NO Boards of Review for merit badges. This means that a Scout is never asked to demonstrate his knowledge of mammals or show his skill at CPR, or anything else along these lines. Instead, he’s asked about his experience earning the badge. Same with specific rank requirements. Scouts don’t tie knots or wrap sprained ankles or anything else like this in Boards of Review.
– Last item: Scouts CAN’T “fail” Boards of Review! (Yes, this is a policy, too.) If a Scout is considered not ready to advance, then a new Board of Review is scheduled for a later date, and the Scout is given a specific set of instructions for what he needs to accomplish between this meeting and the subsequent Board. He is also given to understand that so long as he accomplishes what he’s been asked, the next Board will represent the successful completion of the rank.
These are the things that need to be spelled out to the Advancement Chair, and then the Scoutmaster and Committee Chair in no uncertain terms. These are not negotiable; there is no “compromise.” Either they start pointing toward True North, or the District will hold boards that will supercede the Troop, and the Scouts WILL advance in rank.
Here are two vital pieces of information you’re going to need…
1. In the publication you’re going to purchase, on page 21 you’ll find this: “No Council, District, unit, or individual has the authority to add to or subtract from any advancement requirement.” This includes both ranks and merit badges. The requirements haven’t been created or intended to be “minimum” requirements – they are THE REQUIREMENTS. No more; no less. And word-for-word, so that if a requirement says “show” the Scout shows; if it says “do” the Scout does; if it says “discuss” the Scout discusses. Based on this, the Troop you’re dealing with is completely misguided. They are doing an enormous disservice to their Scouts. In addition to forcing the Scouts to do more than is required, they are also sending the message that “rules don’t count” and can be changed arbitrarily. The Scouts are being “taught” that what’s in their Boy Scout Handbook doesn’t matter – anyone can change what’s there. The egoism behind the declaration that “we have higher standards” miscommunicates the fundamental tenets of Scouting as an educational movement. Further, their sense of what’s “fair” is equally misguided – the standards are the standards and are not to be meddled with.
2. Now go to page 26. There, it clearly states the three objectives of Boards of Review: “To make sure the Scout has done what he was supposed to do for the rank; To see how good an experience the Scout is having in the unit; To encourage the Scout to progress further.” You’ll also find this statement: “The review is not an examination; the board does not retest the candidate.”
However, if the Board of Review expects Scouts to wear their full uniform (which policy I absolutely endorse, by the way), then this and all other expectations should be published for the entire Troop to be aware of – reviews such as this should not be “traps” or “kangaroo courts” or seek to find ways to “trip up” these Scouts.
Now go to page 27. There, you’ll see that for all ranks except Eagle, the board shall be comprised of no less than three and no more than six REGISTERED TROOP COMMITTEE MEMBERS and specifically excludes Scoutmasters and Assistant SMs, and relatives. For Eagle boards, the size limitations again apply, as well as the exclusion of unit leaders, BUT the board may now consist of “(adult) members (who) have an understanding of the importance and purpose of the Eagle Board of Review.” Notice, here, that this board is not limited to Troop committee members. Further, and critically, the Eagle board MUST include at least one (this means it can be more than one!) District or Council advancement representative — this can include YOU, as their commissioner, by the way!
So, here again, this Troop looks like it’s out of line and operating in contradiction to the aims, methods and goals of Scouting.
With this information as the foundation, here’s a game-plan for you…
First, schedule a personal meeting between yourself, the Troop’s advancement chair, and your District or Council advancement chair. I’d keep the meeting informal, but bring that publication I’ve told you about. The purpose of this meeting is educational — Your job will be to help the Troop advancement chair see the light and agree to begin making some changes in the Troop’s advancement process. If he or she gets defensive or starts trying to justify the Troop’s behavior, you’ll have to be patient, and resolute. Your job is to help this person develop a new understanding of the BSA advancement procedures and policies. If you are successful, then your next step is for the three of you to meet with the Scoutmaster, informally, with the same agenda.
If the resistance is unbending, then you’ll have to consider step 2:
The second level will be to attend – along with your advancement chair – a Troop committee meeting, and again plan for an educational conversation. The bottom line here is that they might try to brush your advice aside, but they can’t ignore national policy. They are obliged to operate within policies or they’re potentially in big trouble. (You might even hint that what they’re doing could be considered a form of emotional abuse of these boys, which falls under Youth Protection guidelines and could subject them to a Council’s refusing to accept their re-registration documents, the next time their charter comes due.) If you achieve some level of understanding here, then your District advancement chair can begin some “personal coaching” of the committee to help get them of the right path.
However, if this fails to gain headway, then there’s a third level…
The third level is going directly to the Scouts’ families. Here, you’ll send an open letter to all families of the Troop. In it, you’ll point out what the BSA policies are, and you’ll describe how the Troop is in violation of national policies. You’ll recommend that, with your support, the parents themselves take action to fix this, so that their sons can be given the kind of program the BSA is supposed to be offering. You can also – with the collaboration of your District advancement chair – offer to provide District-level Boards of Review for any Scout who is denied a Troop Board in accordance with BSA policies, and that the District Board’s decisions absolutely supercede those of the Troop.
Before you move to level three, however, check out other nearby Troops, because you may want to let parents know that they don’t have to put up with belligerence – their sons can transfer to a Troop that “gets it right.” (Believe it or not, there are many parents who really don’t know that their sons can be a member of any Troop they choose, so this is very important!)
So there you have it. That’s my best thinking on how to deal with this. It’s based on some similar experiences as a commissioner, and takes into account some of the things I tried that didn’t work as well as some things that did. I’m pretty confident you won’t have to go to level three. But, if you do, then do it, because this situation can’t be allowed to continue.
Finally, don’t think for a moment that these people don’t know what they’re doing, and that what they’re doing is wrong. They simply want to keep on doing it, for whatever their personal reasons or needs might be. So keep this in mind: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Godspeed, and Happy Scouting!
Have a question or problem? Got an idea that will help others? Send an email to AskAndyBSA@yahoo.com – be sure to let me know your Scouting position, town, state, and council!