Sunday, May 21, 2006

Protecting Our Children, Protecting Our Teachers

[IMPORTANT: This post is not an invitation for lashon ha-ra in the comments. As always, da lifnei mi atah omed.]

The big scandal over the past few weeks -- really months -- has been a local yeshiva elementary school that has a rebbe who is accused of molesting students for years and a principal who allegedly covered it up. I have no way of knowing whether or not the accusations are true and therefore prefer to let those most capable of evaluating such charges do so. Yes, the accusations are extremely troubling. Yes, the victims deserve our support, encouragement and profound sympathy. However, I know that false accusations of this nature occur and therefore cannot reach a conclusion on this matter. Let me state this, though: If these charges are proven to be true, the perpetrator and any accomplices who may have neglected their primary responsibilities as educators and human beings by allowing this behavior to continue (again, if it happened), should rot in jail for years.

Re-reading the above paragraph, I realize that it does not reflect my true horror and outrage about this matter. I recommend that everyone with the stomach for it read the Angry Soul blog, in which an adult graphically details the sexual abuse he suffered in an Orthodox sleepaway camp (already a few commenters on various blogs have said that they were there at the time but didn't know about the abuse). If this doesn't make you cry in sympathy and scream in outrage then you should check to make sure you have a pulse. Nevertheless, I believe it is necessary to reserve judgment on unproven matters, especially when one's only source of information is anonymous blogs and the general media.

Let me make a few points that I think are important:

Click here to read more1. There are rabbis who spend a good deal of time investigating and preventing such matters. Are they entirely successful? Probably not. Could they be better trained? Probably. But they are putting forth superhuman efforts (without being paid or appreciated for it). Perhaps greater acknowledgment of their contributions to our community will serve to enhance their efforts.

2. There are schools and camps that are extremely vigilant on these issues. There are camp administrators who make sure that there is a twenty-four hour watch for such deviant behavior. Just because you see a rabbi and his wife taking a stroll around the camp grounds does not mean that they are just out for a shpatzir (stroll). It is more likely that they are out on patrol. Call your children's camps and find out their policies. If they cannot immediately tell you how seriously they take this and how much they are doing to prevent incidents, consider sending your kids elsewhere. But, again, are these well-meaning and hard-working people always successful? Probably not, for the following reason.

3. Training is important. The best of intentions do not always lead to the best results if people are not properly trained to investigate and react in the optimal way. Schools, camps, organizations, etc. should be encouraged to seek professional advice on how to handle these matters from people who have thought about this extensively and consulted with experts. Experience in these matters counts. Schools etc. should to talk to R. Mark Dratch at JSafe and experts like him so they can learn how to handle these matters properly.

4. This is your opportunity as a parent to make a difference. Earlier today I had a long talk with a fellow parent and the principal of my sons' yeshiva (if you know which yeshiva it is, please do not publicize it). He told us what he does to avoid such problems and listened to our suggestions on what else can be done. His basic approach is to follow common sense and if a teacher violates that, fire him (or her). As his posek told him, his responsibility is the safety of his students. The teacher's livelihood is God's responsibility. (I don't want to go into any more detail about what he told me, but I'll write what I told him.)

I gave him some concrete examples of problems occuring today in other schools: for example, a friend told me that when his son was in seventh grade (two or three years ago), the rebbe would have "favorite" students who would sit on his lap and scratch his back. This is clearly unacceptable behavior and there would be a benefit in having definitions of what is acceptable in writing.

As I emphasized, this is as much about protecting the teachers from false accusations as it is about protecting the students from harm. Having policies in writing allows the teachers to know what lines not to cross and how to avoid many, maybe most, misunderstandings of this nature. But there are gray areas. Can a rebbe invite students over for Shabbos? Perhaps only in groups, but even that doesn't guarantee appropriate behavior. Can a rebbe give a single student a ride somewhere? I don't know the answer, but I do know that it is helpful to everyone to have guidelines in place.

It is also important to have guidelines for the administration. Many charges are false but some are true. When an accusation is made, it is helpful for the administration to have set procedures to protect themselves from charges of covering things up. For example: immediately contacting a representative of the parent body; having a child psychologist evaluate the student; if the truth of the charges are unclear, submitting a teacher to mandatory counseling.

"Chacham einav be-rosho". Everyone recognizes that there are troubled people in the world who can destroy other people's lives. We need to be vigilant in preventing that from happening while not making educators, who sacrifice a great deal to teach our children, feel like criminals.

Contact your children's principals and ask what they are doing and what else they can do. Contact your children's camp administrators and ask likewise. Speak respectfully and emphasize that this is not just about protecting children but also about protecting the staff and administration.

And if anyone has access to existing guidelines for schools or camps, please e-mail them to me (e-mail). I've already spoken with a principal about what Torah Umesorah has to offer and it isn't nearly detailed enough for what I have in mind. I'm sure that Catholic schools must have gone through this already and have excellent resources that we can adapt for our needs.

5. Finally, when a great Torah scholar is quoted on a blog or in a secular magazine as saying something that seems outrageous, assume that he is being misquoted. I believe you are halakhically obligated to do so.

UPDATE: Steven Weiss criticizes this post here and Ezzi defends it here

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