Who’s to blame for missing scout saga?

by Jim Longworth

A week ago, 12-year-old Michael Auberry was rescued from the wilds of Doughton Park. We all rejoice in his safe return. But now it’s time to take a closer look at what happened, why it happened, who’s to blame and how it could have been prevented.

Michael was on a camping trip with 10 fellow Boy Scouts and three adult leaders from Troop 230. Suddenly he went missing and stayed that way for four days. The news media had a field day with what seemed to be wall-to-wall coverage. Unfortunately those walls were pretty thin. That’s because no one asked the tough questions. No one followed leads or challenged the PR spin. All we were told was that Michael was an outstanding scout. If the news media had bothered to read through a Boy Scout handbook, they could have reported that Michael did not, in fact, follow rules, and therefore was not a responsible scout. First of all, you never go off alone in a strange place. And if you do slip away and become disoriented, you stay put, call out to the troop and wait for someone to reach you.

Something was fishy about his disappearance from the very start, but no one considered the possibility that the youngster was not missing by accident, but by choice. At any rate, these kinds of questions were never raised. Also, none of the attending journalists hammered the three adult scout leaders as to how they were unable to watch over a mere ten boys. The handbook is clear as to the responsibilities of a scout leader, and in that regard those men failed in their duty, too.

At last, after several days of searching, Michael was rescued, and that’s when a few important details finally began to surface, among them: Young Auberry had ADHD; he didn’t want to go camping in the first place, but his Dad forced him to participate; Michael became homesick; and Michael left the group and tried to walk back home through miles of wilderness. Oh yeah, and if he had made it to the road, Michael’s plan was to hitchhike with a stranger (I suppose Michael’s father never taught him about sexual predators either).

The boy’s father and the adult scout leaders all knew of Michael’s medical condition, yet took no special precautions to care for him while on an extended camping trip. It would have been appropriate, for example, for Mr. Auberry to help chaperone the group so that he could watch over his son, making sure Michael was taking his meds and was staying focused on the prescribed activities.

Were any of these issues and criticisms addressed by the news media? Not initially. Instead we were treated to a myriad of fluff stories about homecoming parties, tying yellow ribbons on trees and how viewers could e-mail Michael with their congratulations.

Excuse me, but Michael was no hero, and this saga should have been prevented. Instead, scores of highly trained search and rescue teams were mobilized, specialized equipment and helicopters were brought in and thousands of man hours expended – all because Michael, his dad and the scout leaders screwed up.

That Michael survived in the woods is fortuitous and, again, we are all grateful for his safe return. But we must not ignore the lessons of this near tragedy. The Boy Scout Council and the Park Service are already taking a hard look at prevention and procedure. Meanwhile, search and rescue organizations and elected officials across the country are continuing to debate the liability issues of such a case as this. One question is: Should those who deliberately put themselves in harm’s way be responsible for the cost of search and rescue?

In Oregon the International K-9 Search and Rescue Service recommends that mountain climbers, for example, purchase so called “trip insurance” for up to $150,000, so that local governments aren’t left holding the bag in the event of a mishap. I support that recommendation, but on a much broader scale. Trip Insurance should be mandated for sky divers, white-water rafters and anyone who camps or hikes in a remote area. No one on the Doughton trip had that kind of insurance and now the Park Service says it will absorb the cost of search and rescue. Translation: We the taxpayers will pay for the mistakes of others. Given the nature and scope of this latest fiasco, I believe that Mr. Auberry and the three adult scout leaders should now be liable for all costs associated with retrieving Michael.  

In any event, we should all begin to address issues of responsibility and responsible behavior. The Michael Auberry ordeal should serve to initiate dialogue between parents and their kids, between parents and scout leaders, and between parents and teachers about how to keep our children safe when participating in field trips or excursions of any kind. Short of that, the offending parties (Michael, Mr. Auberry and the three adult leaders) all deserve a good paddling to the rear. Sometimes a spanking is much more appropriate than a call from Oprah or the president. Worst of all, these screw-ups caused a lot of worry and effort by violating their core value.

The Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared.” Clearly, none of them were.

Jim Longworth is host of “Triad Today” on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and MY48 (cable channel 15).