More Work Ahead, but Positive Change Taking Root in Jewish Day Schools
A groundbreaking survey of child abuse identification and reporting policies among more than 135 Jewish day schools has found some very encouraging results. Conducted by the Institute for University-School Partnership, a division of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, the survey’s findings were presented at a forum for teachers, school administrators, rabbis and mental health professionals at Yeshiva University on September 15.
“This is the first survey of its kind,” said Dr. Yitzchak Schechter, research fellow at the Institute, “and it’s shown that we’ve reached a tipping point. Training is happening in the schools we’ve studied; we’re on our way.”
The study is part of a special initiative called Project CARE (Comprehensive Abuse Response Education), formally launched by the Institute at the forum. Led by Dr. Schechter with Dr. Scott Goldberg, director of the Institute; Dr. David Pelcovitz, The Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Professor of Psychology and Jewish Education at Azrieli; and Dina Rabhan, director of recruitment, placement and induction at the Institute, CARE seeks to better equip schools to identify, report and manage cases of child abuse through research and training on protocols related to sexual, physical and psychological abuse of children. The study helped to assess the effectiveness and regularity of current practices in a wide swath of Jewish elementary and high schools, covering almost 35,000 students in total.
“This is an important program at this moment in time for the Jewish community,” said Dr. Goldberg. “Many have worked to not only bring these issues to the fore but also to directly address them. We are dedicated to building on their successes and learning from their work as we further address these issues systematically and comprehensively in partnership with schools.”
The forum, “From Research to Practice: New Directions in Abuse with Schools,” included a presentation of the study’s findings by Dr. Schechter. Dr. Pelcovitz and Rabbi Yona Reiss, the Max and Marion Grill Dean of YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, also provided psychological and halachic [Jewish law] insight into the various issues involved in abuse.
All three emphasized the change the Jewish community has undergone in the last 20 years in its attitude toward abuse and the specific role day schools must play in identifying and reporting it. “I think this is an area where on a communal level, there was for many years a lack of awareness and appreciation for both the significance and magnitude of the problem of abuse,” Rabbi Reiss said. “Thank G-d, at last we’re able to deal with it in a more systematic fashion.”
“However,” he added, “proactive measures must be taken by rabbinic leaders in all institutions to make very clear that this kind of behavior won’t be tolerated, and we fully endorse all necessary reporting to improve the problem.”
Dr. Schechter noted that the high percentage of participation in the survey alone indicated the extent of awareness of the issue within Jewish day schools. “Over 40 percent of those surveyed responded,” he said—more than double the expected statistic in most field surveys. “We consider this an extremely strong response and an indicator of how important this topic is to schools.”
Also surprising and encouraging was the discovery that over 65 percent of the schools surveyed had featured training or education programs about abuse for their staff within the past five years, and 80 percent of respondents had a method of background checks for new teachers and other hires. “The attitude toward dealing with abuse is very positive,” said Dr. Schechter. “Much change is yet needed to improve child safety, but our research shows that change has begun.”
The next step? CARE hopes to address weak links that the study identified, particularly by providing training that will help teachers and staff identify signs of abuse and increase confidence in their ability to intervene. The program will work intensively with five selected schools from across the country to develop effective policies and procedures, with targeted training of teachers, support staff and parents in their individual roles.
When asked to sum up the overall message of the survey’s findings in a headline, Dr. Pelcovitz said “Recognition of the reality of child abuse and the need to intervene has greatly improved in the Orthodox community. I think the old days have given way to a very different reality.” He added, “It doesn’t make for such a good headline, but I think that’s the bottom line.”