We’ve all heard one too many nauseating sexual molestation stories lately. The ones that make the headlines involve national leaders, police officers and celebrity clergy. But every day, cases of sexual abuse go undetected in the schools where our children and grandchildren spend most of their day.
You might think that at the very least every school in the country would comply with the government’s minimal regulation to have a qualified sexual abuse monitor in every school. Few do.
“Ninety-eight percent of schools ignore the law,” said Debbie Gross, founder and director of Tahel – Crisis Center for Religious Women and Children. “I can’t understand why parents don’t demand this of schools.
Nothing is going to change until they do. Sometimes principals say they have school counselors, but unless they have specific training, they are stumped when a case comes their way.
Unless every teacher has had a yearly lecture on this subject, the school isn’t safe. Even schools where all the teachers are women aren’t safe. There are a small percentage of women who are sexual predators, and there are usually male janitors, bus drivers and guards, some of whom are in those school jobs because of access to children.”
At a recent international conference of Tahel in Jerusalem, 550 women and men from around the world – mental health professionals, lawyers and community leaders – came to hear lectures, share information and take part in panels. But the second part of the conference – a training session for teacher-monitors and rabbis – drew a paltry 30 local rabbis and 30 local teachers instead of the thousands who should have been there.
Tahel’s phone hotline for religious women and children to get help for sexual molestation is ringing constantly – with 30% more calls in 2015 – but qualified personnel in the communities to deal with this crisis are in short supply.
“On one hand, we’re waking up to these dangers,” said Gross. “On the other, we’re not taking the minimal steps to prevent them.”
RIVKA ISRAELI, a mother of seven and a teacher at the Neveh Channah High School for Girls in Gush Etzion, is among the 30 monitors who did undergo the Tahel training program, even though she is already an experienced school guidance counselor with decades of experience and a large private practice.
Her own school is known for its openness to dialogue, she says, which characterizes the Gush Etzion population and its institutions. Nonetheless, she went home from the training and immediately called for a staff-wide consciousness- raising and reinforcement of the rules vis-à-vis contact with students.
“Even in a school that’s open and sophisticated, it’s essential to review school protocols: windows in rooms with student- teacher conferences, no touching, no meeting outside of school, no late-night phone contact. You need rules, and the staff has to know what those rules are.”
She has also received calls from other schools that need help. One of the worst cases she was called to consult in was a school without a monitor, where a male teacher was late-night texting personal and inappropriate messages and photos with numerous high-school girls.
“The girls were badly hurt, and needed therapy, but they didn’t want to go to the police,” Israeli said.
The teacher was fired, and left the field of education. Experts advise not to chase a molester out of town. He’ll probably surface again like a poisonous mushroom in a different community.
“Everyone in town probably knows a known molester’s name,” says Gross.
“It’s the unknown molesters who are the danger, and there’s no excuse for a school not to create the boundaries to protect students.”
A positive sign, says Gross, is the recent in-service workshop sponsored by the Religious Services Ministry, attended by 300 wives of rabbis who serve in the public sphere. Most were haredi (ultra-Orthodox).
“We’re seeing impressive movement to greater openness and taking this matter seriously among the haredi population,” said Gross, “more so than in the national-religious population, which you might assume would take the lead.”
Explains Israeli, who belongs to that sector, “I think there is a general feeling that there are so many current issues to deal with that this important topic gets neglected.”
Gross was also disappointed that so few local rabbis came for training. “A rabbi isn’t a social worker or a lawyer, but many times women and children will seek their advice in matters of sexual abuse. Remember that 90% of the molesters are those whom children know from home, school and community.
How much should a rabbi listen to? Should his wife be present? What if a rabbi turns out to be a molester himself? These are all questions that need to be addressed. It’s hard to imagine a rabbi who doesn’t need this training.”
SUCCESSFUL SCHOOL programs usually start with prevention of sexual abuse, starting with classes in body image and assertiveness. They start with the easy cases: the soldier who fell asleep on top of her in the bus; the man teacher who commented on how pretty a girl looks; the hug of the sports coach after winning a game. How do you know if someone has crossed a line? “Most girls have a hard time saying ‘Don’t touch.’ In almost all cases, teens will say ‘Lo na’im’ [not nice; embarrassing],” says Israeli, who teaches such a course. “They’re concerned about embarrassing the possibly innocent other person, and they’re concerned about confronting authority.
“This isn’t about the religious prohibitions on not touching. It’s about every person’s right to autonomy. We know today that even value-based communities aren’t protected from sexual abuse.
Perhaps our naiveté makes us even more vulnerable.”
Prevention can help head off the horrors phoned in to the Tahel hotline, (02) 673-0002.
“We’re getting daily calls about rape, sodomy and incest. On many nights we’re accompanying girls to the hospital and staying with them while they get medical care and deal with the police. This has to stop. I call on parents to demand safe schools for their children. They deserve our protection.
We can and must protect our school environment. It’s the law, and it’s our duty.” ■
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel.
She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.