Toccoa Camp Responds to Atlanta TV Report

A Toccoa camp is responding after a story on WSB-TV stated some Atlanta parents were upset at an Underground Railroad simulation in which their children participated.

The WSB-TV report quoted Naima McHardy and her father, Curtis, voicing concerns about the simulation at the Blue Ridge Outdoor Education Center in Toccoa.

The young woman was part of a group that attended the camp in early June and did the simulation.

McHardy told WSB-TV that she and her fellow campers had no warning of what would happen in the simulation when they were told to act like slaves and a man began yelling with a whip, after which the campers were led to ‘freedom’ as part of the simulation.

Blue Ridge Outdoor Education Center Director Rich Bowerman said the simulation does involve someone portraying a slave driver yelling and cracking a whip.

He said the slave driver turns out to be someone who leads the campers through the Underground Railroad.

Initially, Bowerman said the simulation is designed to surprise.

“At that point, what we are trying to do is (get) the students to be confused and frightened, I imagine just like a slave would be,” said Bowerman.

While the campers are led to freedom, Bowerman said they encounter other actors playing bounty hunters, supporters, and others that portray what the Underground Railroad was all about.

Once the simulation ends, the students are debriefed.

Bowerman said that nobody in the group McHardy was with last month seemed upset after the simulation.

He said he thought they were quite engaged.

“We had a great de-brief,” said Bowerman. “They asked a lot of very good questions, a lot of expression of good opinion. These are very bright young people. We had lots of good food for thought.”

The girl’s father told WSB-TV that the simulation needs to stop, questioning what it has to do with outdoor ecology.

Bowerman said the center offers not just science-based, but adventure and social studies programs to students and the group the girl was with, called the Atlanta Outdoor Initiative, participated in nearly all of the programs during their stay.

Bowerman went on to say that the Underground Railroad simulation has been done for years and is one of the most popular programs offered based on feedback.

He added that thousands of people of all backgrounds go through it.

“If it is represented in the Atlanta area, any national origin, race, those folks come here as students,” said Bowerman.

In addition, Bowerman said a different group of students came with the Atlanta Outdoor Initiative last year and partook in the simulation, after which there were no complaints.

Bowerman said he spoke with the Initiative’s director and a guidance counselor from an affiliated school after they notified him some parents were upset.

He said he plans to issue a written apology to those parents.

Bowerman said that while there was a parents’ meeting and they had a program schedule, he should have provided more information on the Underground Railroad simulation.

“This has helped me realize that the program is sensitive enough that parents want a little more communication prior to it,” said Bowerman. “That is something the parents of these girls could have used and I should have provided them (with that).”

Bowerman said there are no plans to change anything about the simulation.