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White boys wrapped a strap around a Black kid’s neck at summer camp. A Vineyard town wants answers.

Sailboats and motorboats are anchored in Vineyard Haven Harbor in June 2020 in Tisbury, Mass., on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

A seven-week summer camp at Martha’s Vineyard was touted as the place to be for “a safe summer of fun activities” — from tennis and sailing to drama and arts and crafts. But an incident at the Massachusetts camp last week that was potentially racially motivated has taken both the safety and fun out of summer.

The summer camp at Chilmark Community Center has come under fire after officials acknowledged this week that two White children wrapped a strap around the neck of a young Black boy in an incident that left the child with an abrasion, and a community outraged.

“Two White boys aged 8 and 9 placed a strap from one of the tents around the neck of an 8-year-old African American boy in their group,” Jeff Herman, president of the Chilmark Town Affairs Council, wrote in an email to the camp community, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Times.

Herman, who leads the council that oversees the camp in the town of Chilmark, Mass., said that “the child was otherwise physically unharmed” aside from the abrasion on his neck.

“That said, we are keenly aware that this event was traumatic,” he wrote.

The camp and the Martha’s Vineyard chapter of the NAACP are investigating the July 29 incident — one in which, residents say, community leaders were not forthright in sharing information with the public. Herman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Police said in a news release that they were unable to charge the children because of their age. The state’s criminal justice reform bill in 2018 raised the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 12. None of the children or their families have been publicly identified.

“The Chilmark Police Department has offered assistance, where possible, to the alleged victim’s family,” Chilmark Police Chief Jonathan Klaren said. He added to WHDH, “We certainly hope this young boy is able to enjoy himself at camp or around town or on the island, but that’s the extent of our involvement, offering our assistance where we can.”

The incident has rocked the community and drawn ire this week from critics such as Arthur Hardy-Doubleday, president of Martha’s Vineyard’s NAACP chapter, who has called for the White children and their parents to “be held accountable for this reprehensible event.”

“This event reminds us that while the Island may have a reputation as a racial utopia, we are far from it,” Hardy-Doubleday said in a statement. “Incidents like this cannot be ignored.”

The summer camp was in its fifth week when the incident took place in Chilmark, a town of around 900 people. The community center describes itself on its website as “a social center for the townspeople of Chilmark, summer visitors, and year-round residents alike” for the past 65 years. The camp, a reprieve for both kids and their parents, was one of many nationwide to return after the coronavirus pandemic wiped out much of the industry in 2020.

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As rumors circulated throughout the town, there was no official word for four days regarding the incident. Then, on Monday, Herman sent out an email and text message to members of the community center notifying them of “an incident for which we are deeply sorry,” reported the Boston Globe. Herman wrote that town officials would “make sure that incidents such as this do not happen again.”

The town’s select board held a meeting Tuesday to publicly condemn an incident that left them “deeply troubled.” Select board member Warren Doty said the Chilmark board could not yet comment on whether the incident was racially motivated or a “safe play” issue, according to the Times.

“As a community we abhor violence or discrimination of any kind,” Doty said.

Protesters gathered in the small town to slam local leaders for how they have responded in the past week. One of them was Jane Slater, an 89-year-old longtime Chilmark resident who is also chair of the town’s historic commission. Slater was joined by two friends who held signs with the same message: “Close the CCC now.”

“We’re just three old ladies from Chilmark who got upset over what’s going on,” Slater told the newspaper. “We read Jeff Herman’s letter, and that’s what put us over the edge.”

Other residents have been vocal in denouncing the incident as “disgusting” and “really horrible.” Some, like resident Aaron Barrows, blamed the families of the White children.

“The parents are the ones we should be looking at,” he told WHDH. “Where are they hearing that behavior from?”

Linda Hurteau, another Chilmark resident, echoed Barrows, telling the news station that the White boys probably grew up in homes where the parents influenced their behavior.

“They’re not born with prejudice,” she said.

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