A new study, the first of its kind, on whether and how Jewish day schools around the country address issues of physical, psychological and sexual abuse, concludes that the problem is widespread but “is beginning to be dealt with effectively.”
More than 40 percent of 320 schools polled — primarily Modern Orthodox but including Conservative, community schools and “a sprinkling” of haredi yeshivas — responded to the questionnaire, a surprisingly high figure, according to the study’s sponsor, the Institute for University-School Partnership, a division of Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration.
The findings, shared with The Jewish Week, were scheduled to be released Sept. 15 at a forum at Yeshiva University for day school administrators and educators.
The study found that more than one-third of the responding schools made official mandated reports of abuse in the last year.
Scott Goldberg, director of Azrieli’s Institute for University-School Partnership, who helped lead the study, cautioned against reading too much into the statistic per se.
“It doesn’t mean that abuse happened in the school, or even that there was abuse,” he said, adding that reports of abuse can be made by parents, rabbis, doctors and other community members, and that other incidents of abuse may go unreported.
The figure does indicate that “yes, abuse happens,” and that the more attentive that schools are to the problem, the more incidents will be reported, he said.
Activists on behalf of abuse victims in the Jewish community are welcoming the study as a much-needed professional and systematic effort to quantify and respond to the problem. But they point out that haredi and chasidic schools are most prone to unreported incidents of abuse and are little represented in the YU findings.
The YU officials acknowledge the scope of the study is not fully representative, but assert that as evidence of their commitment to “turn research into practice,” the study coincides with the launching of the Institute’s Project CARE (Comprehensive Abuse Response Education Initiative), to help day schools across the U.S. improve their efforts in recognizing and responding to child sexual, physical and psychological abuse.
Underscoring the need for more data on a problem little acknowledged until a decade ago, 80 percent of respondents report that “behavioral signs” are the primary means of identifying abuse, but only 15 percent of respondents said they could “easily identify abuse, with a full 48 percent disagreeing altogether,” according to the report.
“The headline here is that the community is recognizing a challenge and responding,” said Goldberg. He added that support is coming from rabbis, educators, lay leaders and philanthropists, and that efforts over the last decade have led “to what we expect is a ‘tipping point,’” where the community can face the challenges of abuse.
Yitzchak Schechter, a psychologist who headed the study and program with Goldberg, noted that “as a reflection of the changing times, 88 percent of the respondents agree or strongly agree that reporting abuse is accepted by the Torah.”
Though no statistical data is available for comparison, the study team said this represents “a very significant change in attitude” in the Orthodox community, where some still insist that rabbinic leaders, not secular authorities, should handle such cases.
Schechter pointed out that when a religious community applies its considerable social, institutional and religious will, it can be “a very effective agent of change.”
Dina Rabhan, a social worker and member of the Project CARE team, said that almost all of the educators who responded to the survey said they wanted more training for dealing with abuse. Noting that the second most commonly reported method of identifying abuse is self-reporting by youngsters (63 percent), Rabhan said teachers recognize the need to be able to “hear and believe” children who come forward.
Thirty-nine percent of study respondents “did not agree that students were comfortable discussing sexual or other sensitive topics with teachers,” according to the report.
The third most common means of identification of abuse (61 percent) was “report of a friend — highlighting the importance of training friends on how to ‘keep secrets,’” the study noted.
The research found that 52 percent of the responding schools have written policies and procedures on how to deal with reports of abuse, and another 25 percent said they had oral policies. Eighteen percent said they have active training to deal with the problem; 11 percent of responding schools saw no need for such policies.
Only 38 percent of the schools polled expressed confidence that their local Child Protective Services would handle referred cases effectively.
The Project CARE team said the data collected is invaluable, given the lack of such information until now, and that it can be used to focus on areas of need in training schools and local communities on dealing with abuse.
Project CARE has chosen five schools from across the country (as yet not made public) for a pilot program it will direct in such training. It also plans to help schools develop policies and procedures for dealing with issues, and will produce a handbook by Rabbi Yona Reiss, dean of YU’s rabbinical school, dealing with halachic issues.
“The study is part of a comprehensive look at what systems are in place, and how best to build on that,” said Goldberg, who was heartened by the results that found “so many schools have policies in place and so many want training.”
Response by educators and community activists to news of the survey findings was generally positive, with many noting that the undertaking of the study itself indicates increased and welcome attention to the seriousness of the problem of abuse.
One dean of a haredi school said he sees “much more awareness” in yeshivas and summer camps, though he noted that pockets of resistance remain.
A central issue in the haredi community is whether or not to go to the police in cases of abuse or consult with rabbinic leaders instead.
“There seems to be a great deal of attention to policies and procedures in the yeshivas,” one haredi educator said, “but less about who they report to.”
Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, who heads Yeshiva Darchei Noam in Monsey and is an advocate of going to the police, said he has organized two workshops for parents of his students — boys from kindergarten through eighth grade — on how to talk to their children about abuse.
He recalled that after conducting a worldwide webinar on the subject, a woman in tears called to thank him for “saving her son.” She related how, after taking part in the webinar and then talking to her young son about responding to inappropriate advances from adults, the boy fended off a would-be abuser by screaming loudly.
But several advocates for abuse victims insist that many in the haredi and chasidic communities refuse to acknowledge or deal with the problem.
Ben Hirsch, a founder of Survivors for Justice, said his group is “fighting an uphill battle” to do research within haredi and chasidic schools in communities like Williamsburg and Lakewood, N.J. “The biggest hurdle is access,” he said. “They are so fearful of learning the extent of the problem.” And he questioned whether such schools would cooperate with a program sponsored by Yeshiva University, which is viewed as too liberal in those circles.
Hirsch pointed out that experts acknowledge that up to 80 percent of those in Orthodox programs for at-risk youngsters, or who fled their communities, were abused. But there is little attention to the abusers who remain within those communities, he said.
Asher Lipner, executive vice president of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children, said schools should not only terminate abusive teachers but publicize their actions so that the perpetrators would not be able to move to another community and resume teaching, as often occurs.
His group is sponsoring a national week dedicated to dealing with child abuse in the community, set for Oct. 17-24.