Education Minister Naftali Bennett has called for an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct at Tel Aviv’s Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts.
Bennett said he has instructed the Education Ministry’s director-general, Shmuel Abuav to conduct a “comprehensive inspection of the events at Thelma Yellin so we can generate lessons for the school and the education system as a whole.”
Artist Boaz Arad, 62, a teacher at the school, was found dead
outside his home in Tel Aviv on Friday in an apparent suicide.
It is believed that Arad took his life in response to a report, released Thursday by the Mako news portal, that he engaged in sexual relations with several of his underage high school students while teaching painting at the school between 1983 and 2006.
“It is a tragedy that he committed suicide, but what many people don’t know is also what a tragedy it is for the women who were hurt [by him],” Orit Sulitzeanu, the director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
“Many times we see at the crisis centers... the price of this – it can ruin women’s lives [for years afterwards] – and nobody sees this except us,” she said.
IN THE Mako report, a former student spoke of her fouryear relationship with Arad, starting when she was 16.
Calling herself “G.,” she told Mako: “Boaz used to invite students to his home, this was a known thing. We would come and talk about art and the world. When I was 15, my relationship with him became closer and more intimate.
“I think it was love at first sight. He was more than 20 years older than me, I was in awe of him as a teacher and we all admired him. To this day, there are a lot of students who feel this way toward him.”
Arad denied the allegations of sexual misconduct with minors in the report and explained that he had relationships with four former female students when they were of age.
“We are not only dealing with a legal issue, we are dealing with a social and hierarchical issue. A girl at the age of 16, what does she know? She can think that she fell in love with her teacher, but she is too young to really understand that she is being taken advantage of,” Sulitzeanu said.
As such, she welcomed the investigation by the Education Ministry, saying it was “better late than never... We have been talking about this for years, and it is time that the reality changes,” she said.
The rape-crisis director explained that it is important to understand that schools are not always “safe places,” and that sexual assault and exploitation of minors happens more than is widely known.
According to Sulitzeanu, 20% of minors in Israel are victims of sexual harassment or assault and 85% of the victims who turn to the rape-crisis centers were hurt by someone who is close to them.
“We can minimize the sexual assaults, but we have to reform the priorities of the education system. We need to understand that this is a widespread phenomenon,” she said. “In every school there is a security guard, but we must understand that we need a guard within the school as well.”
Sulitzeanu said that in order to minimize the phenomenon there needs to be a collective effort to combat it.
She said that very clear boundaries between teachers and students must be established and schools should hold annual seminars for students and teachers as to what is allowed and what is not. She added that educators should also be trained to spot the signs of sexual harassment.
“I hope that from this terrible tragedy and the terrible tragedy of the girls who he hurt, maybe [Education Minister] Bennett will instruct all schools to undergo sexual harassment and prevention workshops,” she said.
She added: “There is a social responsibility to observe children, to keep an eye out for signs of abuse – such as a change in behavior – and to intervene when necessary.”
In the report, the former student also alleged that the school knew about her affair, as well as numerous others, but had turned a blind eye.
When asked in the report if she was “mad” at the high school, “G.” responded: “Yes, one of the reasons it was so important for me to speak is the anger at the management and the other teachers in the plastic arts, who knew in one way or another about my story.”
She continued, saying that another teacher had once criticized the underage relationship, only to go on and develop a student-teacher relationship of his own.
“This is the point. I say if I was the only one, so you could say there was something unusual here, something not okay but special. But this is not what happened,” she said.
Arad is the second teacher at the school to be accused of sexual misconduct.
Last month Haaretz reported that Menahem Nebenhaus, a respected music conductor and teacher at Thelma Yellin, had sexually molested his high school male students for years.
MK Dr. Yifat Shasha-Biton (Kulanu), chairwoman of the Knesset Committee for the Rights of the Child, also welcomed Bennett’s decision to launch the investigation but warned it was just the tip of the iceberg.
“The time has come for the [education] system to wake up. The phenomenon of sexual exploitation of children and sexual harassment by faculty and staff towards students is evil,” she said.
She added that the report on Thelma Yellin was just one example of such misconduct and that there were similar incidents at schools throughout the country.
“The education system, the supervisors and administrators, need to uproot the weeds from within, not to defend them, and certainly not to whitewash such stories,” she said.
Shasha-Biton called on all pupils and students who had been sexually exploited or harassed in schools, or anywhere else, to come forward and tell their friends, parents and the police.Sarah Levi contributed to this report.