Boy Scouts' shift to allow girls draws mixed reaction in Jacksonville

Parents, leaders in both scouting organization respond to news

By Jim Piggott - Reporter, DAVID CRARY, AP National Writer

NEW YORK - Embracing a historic change, the Boy Scouts of America announced Wednesday plans to admit girls into the Cub Scouts starting next year and to establish a new program for older girls using the same curriculum as the Boy Scouts.

Under the plan, Cub Scout dens -- the smallest unit -- will be single-gender, either all-boys or all-girls. The larger Cub Scout packs will have the option to remain single gender or welcome both genders. The program for older girls is expected to start in 2019 and will enable girls to earn the coveted rank of Eagle Scout.

At the North Florida Council in Jacksonville, troop leader Brad Estabrook said he remembers the mixed reactions the Boy Scouts drew when they first allowed women as den mothers, but now the move is very popular.

He said this change could see a similar response.

“At this particular point, I am going to say I have mixed emotions,” Estabrook said. “All I can say is I’m going to try. I am not against, but I’m not necessarily in favor until I see what it is, but I’m not against.”

The Boy Scouts board of directors, which approved the plan unanimously in a meeting at BSA headquarters in Texas, said the change was needed to provide more options for parents.

"We believe it is critical to evolve how our programs meet the needs of families interested in positive and lifelong experiences for their children," said Michael Surbaugh, the BSA's chief scout executive.

"The values of Scouting -- trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind, brave and reverent, for example -- are important for both young men and women," Surbaugh added.

The announcement follows many months of outreach by the BSA, which distributed videos and held meetings with the Boy Scout community to discuss the possibility of expanding girls' participation beyond existing programs, such as Venturing and Sea Scouts.

Those groups are made up of teens, and one Boy Scouts parent in Jacksonville said she's not sure adding girls is a good idea for younger children.

“I grew up in the age of Boy Scouts way back when,” Rachel Ellis said. “You have to let boys be boys; girls be girls. I can’t say anything bad about it, because it is good for both entities, but where does it stop?”

The Girl Scouts of the USA criticized the initiative, saying it strained the century-old bond between the two organizations. Girl Scout officials have suggested the BSA's move was driven partly by financial problems and a need to boost revenue.

In August, the president of the Girl Scouts accused the Boy Scouts of seeking to covertly recruit girls into their programs while disparaging the Girl Scouts' operations.

"I formally request that your organization stay focused on serving the 90 percent of American boys not currently participating in Boy Scouts ... and not consider expanding to recruit girls," wrote GSUSA President Kathy Hopinkah Hannan in a letter to the BSA's president, AT&T Chairman Randall Stephenson.

But the CEO of Northeast Florida's Girls Scouts Gateway Council said the shift could help her organization.

“I think it will have a very positive impact on Girl Scouts,” Mary Anne Jacobs said. “We are a girl-serving organization -- that is the purpose of Girl Scouts, and I believe the announcement will heighten the awareness of the importance of single-gender program and to let girls be girls in a girl-led environment.”

The Girl Scouts, founded in 1912, and the BSA, founded in 1910, are among several major youth organizations in the U.S. experiencing sharp drops in membership in recent years. Reasons include competition from youth sports leagues, a perception by some families that they are old-fashioned and busy schedules that prompt some parents to despair of meeting all their children's obligations.

For some families, scouting programs that welcome both boys and girls could be a welcome convenience.

As of March, GSUSA reported 1,566,671 youth members and 749,008 adult members, down from just over 2 million youth members and about 800,000 adult members in 2014. The Boy Scouts say current youth participation is about 2.35 million, down from 2.6 million in 2013 and more than 4 million in peak years of the past.

Copyright 2017 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.