By Paul Shaviv*
Dealing with allegations and issues of sexual abuse are very difficult for school Administrators. Cases which reach the public – either online or in the press – tend to be very clear-cut, or at least feature very strong allegations based on strong evidence. The school Principal often has to deal with facts which are much less clear.
First – some clarity: in every jurisdiction, explicit sexual relationships between teachers and students, any age, any gender, are illegal. A teacher is a professional in a relationship of authority, and just as physician-patient relationships are ipso facto held to be an exploitative abuse of professional status, so are teacher-student relationships.
Relationships which do not include full sexual relations, or constitute harassment (unwelcome attention, touching, remarks etc.) are breaches of professional standards and certainly breaches of school protocol; they may not be illegal. The school has to judge their severity, and the professional/disciplinary consequences.
A school Administrator or teacher who comes into the possession of information that suggests an illegal act has taken place, or that a child is in physical or sexual danger, has a duty to notify a Child Protection Agency, and/or the police. (If the student is above the age of 18, a Child Protection Agency may not be involved, but the relationship is still illegal.)
Legislation, and policies, differ from place to place, but a Head of School should be familiar with local law and local practice.
How does the Principal learn about these allegations?
Sometimes directly: a student, parent, or teacher will disclose that they have witnessed some disturbing incident, or become aware of a serious situation. A parent may bring printouts of incriminating emails, or texts, or pictures. A School Counsellor will inform the Principal that a student has confided something (in such cases, the Counselor has a legal duty to disclose). In such cases, the Head should immediately consult a lawyer familiar with school law, and immediately call a Child Protection Agency.
But often the information is much less clear. Unsure and possibly afraid of how to proceed, a parent, teacher, student, alum or community member may drop hints.
- “If anyone ever found out what went on in old Mr X’s class, there would be a scandal!”
- “Well, of course, it was obvious that s/he would get the lead part in the play! It’s a disgrace, and I’m surprised the school allows it.”
- “The rumors going around are terrible!”
- “I happened to see that young teacher in town last week, with one of the students.”
- A parent may express concern that their son “spends every Shabbas with Rabbi X – he keeps him company while the rebbetzen goes to care for her parents”.
- The Principal, whose job involves developing very sensitive antennae, may see or sense something ‘not quite right’ in the school.
In these cases, an investigation of greater or lesser intensity, must take place. The careful procedure for carrying our such investigations should be known to every Principal; it is also good process to consult a school lawyer and follow that advice to the letter.
A cardinal principle is that no-one can be above suspicion – “Mrs X – can’t be!”.
At this stage, the Principal must be very, very careful, for several reasons:
- The suspicion may be unfounded, and the teacher involved innocent. (Sometimes guilty of foolish, or naïve, or well-intentioned but flawed behavior – all of which need attention — but innocent of sexual misconduct)
- Alternatively, the fragment of information may turn out to be a window onto a much more widespread and serious situation
- Complete confidentiality is absolutely essential, but very difficult to enforce.
It takes skill – and occasionally courage – to determine the truth.
Schools, like every venue where young people gather, attract personality types who either deliberately seek or are unable to resist improper relationships with young people.
- Deliberate sexual predators (the first type) are expert at presenting (and building) public images of complete respectability, and expert at identifying vulnerable students (of all ages). They are the most dangerous, and least likely to get caught – I have dealt with a handful over the years, including some very serious cases, but I am equally sure that there were others whose activities remained secret. A cardinal principle is that no-one can be above suspicion – “Mrs X – can’t be!”. Of the more obviously problematic, I have written previously about the issue of the charismatic teacher (“The Pied Piper”), and their often malevolent but seductive influence in a school (and community).
- The second type are individuals who get drawn into relationships because they cannot control their own behavior. Sometimes they are teachers who are themselves in the middle of some emotional crisis or pressure; sometimes their duties bring them into close physical or emotional contact with students (Art teachers, phys ed teachers and coaches, literature and even limmudei kodesh teachers); sometimes they are plain stupid. Teenage hormones and emotional roller-coasters complement the dismal, mutually vulnerable setting – again, especially where the teen is in some sort of crisis or emotional turmoil — “Needy adults finding needy teenagers”.
I was once debriefing with a group of colleagues after a particular incident, and I remarked that male teachers often find it uncomfortable to teach teenage girls. I was stunned when a highly stable, highly respected female colleague quietly said “Don’t you think it is also a problem for women?” But of cases of teacher misconduct which reach the press, most feature female teachers and male students.
Two special cases need to be mentioned:
- Very rarely (much less often than alleged), an accusation will be completely fabricated, and completely untrue. I have known only two in forty years. This is why these cases must be handled very, very carefully. Again, legal and other professional guidance must be taken on the consequences for the complainant. The vulnerability of teachers to malicious accusations of “abuse” is clear. The teacher, if innocent, may be traumatized by such an allegation. There is usually a ‘back story’ to false allegations, which may or may not involve the teacher.
- If the allegation involves the Principal him/herself – a call needs to be made to the Chair/President of the Board. They have the responsibility of action. If there is no response – call the Child Protection Agency.
Finally, there are two phenomena for which your friendly Principal has to be prepared:
- Those who will go to great lengths to protect, defend or excuse the teacher, even where guilt is proven – including many who should know better; and the ease with which the offender may be offered employment elsewhere. Even victims may exculpate the perpetrator. “He gave me far more than he took from me” , as a victim of awful sexual assault once said to me about the teacher concerned.
- The firestorm of publicity and concern which will ensue as soon as any hint of scandal leaks out. The Principal should seriously consider engaging a Crisis Management consultant.
Heading a school is difficult; heading a private school, in many ways more difficult; and heading Jewish schools is a very, very difficult and complex task, requiring a very wide range of skills. Parents and community are absolutely right to be concerned and vigilant about the safety and protection of their children – it is the school’s first duty to ensure a safe environment in school. Yet dealing with the murky waters of abusive behavior, of all sorts, often means entering territory for which minimum training has been given (especially in the private sector, and especially in the religious sector), and of which there is occasionally astonishing ignorance and lack of understanding. The answer is for parents and school boards to insist on the highest standards of comprehensive professional training and professional development for those responsible for running our schools.
*Paul Shaviv has occupied senior Administrative positions in Jewish day schools over many decades, including heading two of the largest schools in North America – TanenbaumCHAT in Toronto, and Ramaz in New York. He wrote the standard book on managing Jewish High Schools – ‘The Jewish High School: a complete management guide’, and is a frequent writer and commentator on Jewish educational issues. In 2009 he was awarded the Max M. Fisher Prize for Excellence in Jewish Education. He is the head of Paul Shaviv Consulting, which offers services to Jewish and non-Jewish independent schools, and he publishes a weekly newsletter on school management issues.