Child Abuse: A School Meets a Crisis

Sep 21, 2004

Child Abuse: A School Meets a Crisis

By William S. Altshul

Originally appeared in Ten Da’at vol. 2,3 1988, pp. 13-14. Appears here with permission.

It has been over a year since our community was rocked with the news that our upper school General Studies principal, a non-Jew, had been arrested on two accounts of child abuse. None of his victims were, or had ever been, students at our school. Nevertheless, our school, his major place of employment, was for a time at the center of a very public episode- one covered extensively by the electronic and printed media. The perpetrator pled guilty to his crimes, was sentenced and sent to prison. Our children have weathered this event, we have hired a new principal, and life goes on. However, as educators, we should recognize that all of life is a learning experience, and even this sad and tragic episode can teach important lessons. I would like to share this experience with my fellow educators with the hope that it will never be drawn upon, but, at the same time, with the caveat that anyone who works with children has to be aware that child sexual abuse is a phenomenon that will not disappear, and thus must we all face it.

1. Be prepared. Every school should have a well defined program to educate its students to protect themselves from possible abusers. This is a difficult program to teach, because abusers will often be people whom the children trust: relatives, friends, teachers. Nevertheless, we must give our children the practical tools and the emotional stability to be able to deal with them. It is when they are most vulnerable when they are preyed upon, and we must protect them by preparing them. Children need to be informed, as do adults, of the potential danger that sexual abuse constitutes. Adults have the responsibility to provide children, at the very least, with correct information about human sexuality in general, and sexual abuse in particular. This often involves correcting a tremendous amount of misinformation which they learn from the world at large. Valuable resources for information and curricula include local school boards, social service agencies- Jewish and general, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

2. If there is a perpetrator in one’s school one has to, at the outset, separate the person from the institution. One must realize that the issue of child sexual abuse affects our entire society and is not a stigma on any group of individuals or institution. Yes, we certainly feel that our kedushat Yisrael should prevent or minimize its incidence in our community. But, we all know that the human personality is extremely complex and our tradition does not underestimate the human potential for abnormal behavior.

3. Cooperate with the authorities and seek the advice of professionals. The trained professionals on our local police force’s child sexual abuse team, as well as the psychologists and counselors whom we consulted, were extremely helpful. These are people who work with these issues on a daily basis and who should be part of any crisis management team in helping the educator deal with students, parents, and the community at large.

4. Develop a policy on handling the media and stick to it. Dealing with both the electronic and imprint media is like dealing with kavod, about which the Talmud says, “the faster you run away from it, the faster it runs after you.” We took the advice of the detectives on the case and cooperated with the media in providing information without exposing any individuals, students, or teachers to the public eye.

5. The most compelling question the teenagers in our high school asked was, “Here was an adult whom we trusted and who betrayed that trust. How do we know whom we can trust?” This is a difficult question that we must face with our tradition’s candid estimation of human fallibility, mortality and individual responsibility. Each and every one of us has to develop our moral and ethical behavior. The Mussarmovement certainly responded to this question and its teachings in this area are very valuable.

6. For many, this event was comparable to the loss of a loved one. Students lost a teacher, a mentor, and teachers lost a trusted colleague. We all experienced the same kinds of grief reactions that occur when someone dies. It is important to note that after abour a week normal balance was restored. The adults sought constant reassurances that the students were coping well, while the students wanted to forget the issue and move on. They seemed to heal from the emotional trauma more quickly than the adults.

Not only did they heal but, I believe, our school and its students emerged stronger and wiser. Indeed, the shared experience of adversity brought our entire community closer together and strengthened us for whatever unpleasant experiences life may hold. Many of our younger adolescents literally grew up overnight, as they very quickly learned to deal with what teenagers usually absorb over the course of many years. I hope that the lessons that we learned can be helpful to others and that we can all be successful in preparing our students for life and its challenges.