Boy Scouts name change follows decade-long identity crisis. Will it sink or save the struggling organization?

May 15, 2024 | Latest News | 0 comments

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The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was met with a wave of criticism when it recently announced it was changing its name, but the organization has consistently faced backlash over the last decade for making moves to broaden its doors.

BSA has faced condemnation for making moves to be more inclusive, like allowing girls and gay kids and leaders to join. At the same time, participation has steadily dipped — all while enduring bankruptcy, a global pandemic and tens of thousands of sexual abuse claims costing millions of dollars.

“When you change the name from Boy Scouts to what is it, Scouting America, that vaporizes Boy Scouts altogether,” Jerry Gerlach, who was a Scout leader from 2015 to 2020, told Fox News Digital. “It’s gone at that very moment and I think it’s a sad thing.”

Changing the name pushed Boy Scouts to “the point of no return,” he added.

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But Selby Chipman, an Eagle Scout from the 2021 inaugural female class, praised the move.

“The most important thing to highlight is that the name change doesn’t change Scouting’s mission, which is to reach all eligible youth and provide leadership opportunities, service opportunities and different life skills,” she said.

“The name change is really just so everyone knows that they have an opportunity to join, because some young girls, when they heard that girls were first allowed, they were like, ‘Wait, boys is still in the name?’” Chipman added. “I think highlighting the name change just means we want to reach all the young eligible youth, which is part of our mission, is what really the name change is about.”

The Eagle Scout’s comments echo BSA’s.

The name change reflects “the organization’s ongoing commitment to welcome every youth and family in America to experience the benefits of Scouting,” BSA said when it announced the move last week. While the organization indicated the change will help improve low recruitment numbers and give American girls more opportunities, some critics believe the move is the final step in removing one of the last male-only spaces for American boys. 

BSA declined comment on this story.

BSA, facing significant criticism for limiting its inclusion and tailoring itself to a religious demographic, began making a series of changes it hoped would alleviate that while simultaneously bolstering enrollment. Instead, participation steadily dipped.

From 2009 to 2012, BSA lost roughly 137,000 participants, or nearly 5%, according to its reports. A far cry from its peak in the 1970s at around 5 million, according to the Associated Press.

In 2013, after facing years of criticism for barring gay members, the organization lifted its ban. Then in 2015, the organization announced homosexual men could hold leadership positions within troops. In 2017, BSA announced that transgender youth could join the ranks based on the gender identity indicated on their application.

By 2019, enrollment dropped to 2.1 million — a loss of more than a quarter of its participants from 2009. 

Gerlach said allowing gay members put him in a difficult position.

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“It created an issue because now I have to create sleeping arrangements when we went camping. I can’t put a boy with a boy because I don’t know what the sexual preference is,” he told Fox News Digital. “It really created an issue I didn’t know how to handle.”

“How are we going to keep these boys separated but still keep the scouting values going because they love to bunk together, because they’re up until midnight poking each other or throwing spitballs or whatever they’re doing, whatever mischief they want to cause?” he said. “That was when I decided I was going to leave as a leader, because I didn’t feel I could create that safe environment.”

BSA made other changes in the name of inclusivity. It issued a statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in summer 2020 and announced that a diversity, equity and inclusion merit badge would be required to become an Eagle Scout, and employees were required to take DEI training.

The organization later said those plans were “delayed to allow for the careful consideration and evaluation of feedback received from a wide variety of commenters on the draft requirements.” BSA eventually announced that its Office of Diversity and Youth Development Office later developed a “Citizenship in Society” merit badge. 

Gerlach believes DEI in Scouting has an “adverse effect.”

“It’s creating those walls that we’ve been trying to tear down for generations,” he said. 

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In 2019, facing steep participant losses, BSA announced that girls could join Boy Scouts. Chipman, herself now an assistant scoutmaster, said her inaugural all-girls troop had only five members when it started. Now it has 50.

Chipman and her troop, determined to become Eagle Scouts, found ways to earn their badges even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to qualify within 19 months. She said she felt like she and the thousand other young women who earned Eagle Scout status were a sisterhood pushing the program forward.

She said the decision to open up Boy Scouts gave young girls the “high adventure” opportunities they hadn’t been previously afforded.

“The program’s really great, and I’ve had a great time,” Chipman told Fox News Digital. “Some of my best friends I’ve met through scouting.”

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without scouting, I wouldn’t have the skills that I can apply to my everyday life,” she added, noting that the troops are still segregated by gender.

Critics have repeatedly accused the Boy Scouts of deviating from its founding, particularly after allowing girls.

“The tradition of the Boy Scouts of America has long focused on shaping and building character in young men, while organizations like the Girl Scouts cater to the unique needs of young women,” Michal Domogala, who became an Eagle Scout in 1993, told Fox News Digital.

“I believe boys should have a place of their own to be boys, test themselves, become leaders, and be proud of their accomplishments,” he continued. “The divestiture from specifically guiding these boys amongst boys is a long-term disservice and does not directly address the problems of this previously flourishing organization.”

The Boy Scouts was founded in 1910 to teach “patriotism, courage, self-reliance, and kindred values.” Today, BSA’s mission statement is “to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law.”

That oath requires a scout to do their duty to God and country, to help people and to stay physically strong and “mentally awake.” Likewise, the Scout Law demands character traits such as obedience, bravery, cleanliness and reverence.

But Gerlach described the mission of Boy Scouts as simply providing opportunities for “boys to be boys.”

“Boys want to roughhouse,” he said. “They want to get dirty. They want to play with fire, they want to get tools out, and they want to wrestle with one another.”

“Removing them from that and just letting them roughhouse and talk the way they talk and do the things they want to do without worrying about who’s watching and who’s seeing what they’re doing, just be free, I think that was the mission,” Gerlach added. “I think that’s what we tried to provide was just an opportunity to have fun, experience things in an environment where you can be you and develop who you are.”

But Chipman disagreed.

“I think it’s really important to note that the mission has never changed,” she said. “It’s always stayed the same.”

“Being able to have this new level of inclusivity with the name change, we’ve been waiting for it and we’re really excited just to move forward with our program,” Chipman added.

Still, BSA’s policy changes aside, the organization faced several significant challenges, nearly all at once: a global pandemic, a sexual abuse scandal and bankruptcy. By 2020, enrollment decreased by 43% to 1.1 million, though court records showed it dropped to 762,000, The Associated Press reported.

To start, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which adopted the Boy Scouts as its official youth program in 1913, announced in 2019 that it would sever its ties with the organization. The Mormon church had 425,000 youths in Cub and Boy Scouts, making it the biggest participant in Scouting, according to The Salt Lake Tribune

In February 2020, the organization filed for bankruptcy after thousands of people came forward with lawsuits alleging scout leaders sexually abused them. The organization spent more than $150 million to settle hundreds of abuse lawsuits between 2017 and 2019, and later, BSA established a trust that’s expected to pay out $2.4 billion to more than 82,000 victims, CNN reported.

In February, the Supreme Court declined to halt the bankruptcy settlement for the Boy Scouts of America and rejected an emergency request from a group of childhood sex-abuse victims who said the agreement unlawfully bars them from suing groups that ran local scouting programs like church and civic groups, CNN reported.

Today, enrollment remains at just over 1 million, including 176,000 girls, according to the Associated Press. It’s unclear how the name change will affect that.

“Recruitment has always been a problem with Boy Scouts,” Gerlach said. “It’s always very hard to recruit people, and we worked very hard to do that. Now, what do you have to sell? There’s no product to sell anymore.”

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