How Dare You Pour Borscht On My Daughter's Head!

One complaint about Kangaroo Court overturns a Miami Beach day camp's 25-year tradition

The August 2 sleepover for nine-through-eleven-year-olds was one of the most anticipated events of the Miami Beach Parks and Recreation Department's eight-week day camp. Campers at the Scott Rakow Youth Center had been promised dancing, a pizza party, swimming, pinatas, the requisite ghost stories, and a complete disregard for regular bedtimes.

Nothing, though, compared to the expectation of Kangaroo Court, for more than 25 years a highlight of the program's sleepovers. In the activity, the counselors preside over a mock court and "try" the children on various charges such as "using the pay phone too much" or "biggest whiner." Deliberations are nonexistent and conviction is immediate. As for sentencing, the guilty are doused with a bucketful of food. This year a borscht-based brew was reserved for lesser infractions, a milky mixture was splashed on for more serious wrongdoings, and a chocolate-syrup slime was the penalty for the most heinous offenses. Some children were also "punished" with time in wading pools full of ice water and shaving cream.

According to Steven Reiz, the center's recreation director, two hours of these hasty proceedings was not time enough to try the 60 kids individually, so the remaining campers were summarily convicted and drenched in groups. The orderly proceedings then disintegrated, as planned, into a free-for-all water-balloon and shaving-cream fight.

"They poured all these disgusting things over the children; it was really disgusting but it was good," says eight-year-old Emily Laurence, who participated in Kangaroo Court for the first time this summer and says it was her favorite part of the sleepover.

But at least two campers didn't find any joy in the dregs. "That was my worst time during the summer," says ten-year-old Constance Johnson, who was subjected to a communal dousing. "I felt like I was in the garbage for two weeks and never took a bath." Both she and a friend, eleven-year-old Sussan Cohen, say they were never given an opportunity to back out of the activity. Reiz says the counselors were instructed to tell their assigned groups that the activity was optional, and that several children chose to sit out. "As for every single child being told by their counselor, I can't vouch for that," he admits.

At about 12:30 a.m., after the kids showered and swam and were gearing up for ghost stories, the two distraught girls called their parents to come pick them up. Constance's father, Paul Johnson, Jr., was less than pleased with what he saw and heard. "When I arrived, I found her soaking wet, shivering from cold and fear - fear of retribution from the ~~`coaches,'" he wrote in a two-page letter to Bonnie LeMay, director of the youth center. From the "horror stories" his daughter told him about Kangaroo Court, Johnson wrote, he gathered that the campers had been "intimidated or terrorized."

Johnson, who moved to Miami Beach this summer, demanded the resignation of LeMay and the twelve overnight supervisors, and wrote, "Two-hundred-pound counselors dumping swill on the heads of ten-year-old girls does not appear to be faithful adherence to the objectives of the Youth Center.... If this type of program is representative of Miami Beach values, I am sure that I want no part of it. And I am doubly sure that I do not want my tax dollars going to such activities." Funded in part by the city and by a $196 fee per child, the day camp is open to Miami Beach residents and to nonresidents who attend a Miami Beach school.

Johnson took issue with the lawless nature of Kangaroo Court, a term that originated on the nineteenth-century American frontier, where judges had to cover a large territory and were paid on the basis of how far they traveled and how may trials they conducted. "I questioned the validity of such a tradition in Miami Beach or anywhere in 1991," he says. "The idea is to get the children away from violence and arbitrariness. They get enough of that on the street. It seems to me kangaroo courts went out some years ago."

Johnson met with LeMay and William Irvine, the director of the Miami Beach Parks and Recreation Department, to discuss his complaint, which Irvine says was the first formal objection ever to Kangaroo Court. "We don't want any participants feeling intimidated or put upon," Irvine says. "When someone tells us something like this, we want to be very sensitive about it."

"It caught us off guard, it was really out of the blue," declares LeMay, the youth center's director for the past thirteen years. "Kangaroo Court has been in existence for so long and it's so well liked, it's been a standard part of summer programming." Parks and Recreation Department officials met with the counselors and also interviewed several girls who'd participated in the sleepover, all of whom said they'd heard the disclaimer before Kangaroo Court but had participated with relish.

Then, in a remarkable display of civic responsiveness, Irvine canceled Kangaroo Court. In an August 26 letter to Johnson, he wrote: "The majority of input from other participants indicated that a very structured and organized series of activites took place that evening.... However, after careful review and consideration of the sleepover's itinerary, `Kangaroo Court' will not be held in the future so as to avoid any possible misinterpretation, or the potential impression of intimidation that even one member of this age group may feel."

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