On Skolnick, Our Children are the Victims, not Our Institutions

Parents Should be Asking More Questions of their schools

It’s in our communal DNA. We defend teachers accused of abuse saying “It’s unproven, there’s been no arrest, it’s just the kid’s word against the adult”, and when evidence is overwhelming, we defend the schools that employed the teachers. At this point in the Jonathan Skolnick case, I have plenty of questions, and none of the online defenders of Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy (SAR) or Yeshivah of Flatbush High School (YOF) have any answers.

Following a mass gun shooting, we often hear: The shooter bought the gun legally, passed his background checks, and this was his first crime. There is nothing we could have done to prevent it.

Do we accept that answer as a society and move on? Absolutely not. We ask what can be done to limit the types of guns available, strengthen our background checks, and find red flags of a mass shooter beforehand. I’m not suggesting we have the answers to mass shootings yet, but our society asks the questions. Those who say “do nothing” are relegated to the outskirts of our political conversation.

Following sexual abuse at a day school, we seem to have a different standard. The Rabbi was a beloved teacher who didn’t look creepy, he passed his background check, and he was never accused of sexual abuse before. There is nothing the day school could have done to prevent it.

We should never accept that answer in our community.

The first indication that the communal conversation was woefully uninformed was a parent who stated on Facebook:

I think it possible that Skolnick didn’t victimize students at YOF. YOF was and is an elite school, with a very involved parent body, with many parents in and out of the build all day. I think this makes the school unique and makes it difficult for a predator to carry out his/her depraved wants.

YOF made a statement, saying “We are not aware of any type of inappropriate behavior during Rabbi Skolnick’s employment at your Yeshivah”, but did encourage people who knew anything to talk to the FBI.

A few hours later, it was revealed that many of the victims were YOF students. YOF’s statement may have been technically accurate, but the tone was wrong.

The JTA report found that at YOF teachers communicated with students via WhatsApp, as Rabbi Skolnick did as himself. It is presumably how he got their personal phone numbers for his online alter ego.  A YOF graduate stated on Facebook,

I think that all of us felt more connected to the teacher if they had our number……We’re calling them in the middle of the night like, ‘I need help with this answer, explain this to us.’ All of these things. Even in school, like, ‘Hey, I’m coming late to class, I wanted to get coffee.’ We were very close to the teachers here.

The Family Handbook for 2019-20 at SAR High School (revised July 2019) states that SAR High School Facility are only to be contacted at their professional email addresses, a great policy. It states clearly, “Teachers and students may not text each other.” This means that locating private details for students would be hard for an SAR teacher. The importance of such a policy is that if a teacher were to contact a student on WhatsApp, it would be a red flag given this is not a normal way to communicate. I have read that the Frisch school has such a policy similar to SAR but that many other day schools do not. It is important to make sure this policy is publicized with parents and continues to be enforced. If your school has no such policy, ask them why not!

SAR parents should be asking for a review of the current policy to make sure it is being followed. For instance, the Family Handbook says, “At the administration’s discretion, texting may be used by administration and faculty to communicate with students on school trips and Shabbatonim.”  Does the middle school have similar policies, and if so, was Skolnick ever granted administrative discretion?  I don’t know, but SAR parents should ask.

Jewish Week reports an SAR student was upset because his social coaching session with Skolnick was canceled due to the arrest. Were SAR teachers supposed to be providing social coaching to students?  It is important to review SAR policies on tutoring relationships with teachers in and outside of school which I am unable to find in the family handbook. Is a teacher qualified to work through social issues with students, and if so, what are the boundaries of these sessions?

One of the alleged victims of SAR’s Stanley Rosenfeld says there have been repeated failures at SAR from the 1970’s to 2012 and today, and that these failures become a chazakah, or a repeated action that is firmly established. He notes that SAR’s entire response has been to pat themselves on the back for their response rather than focus on prevention. Many parents have taken to social media with public posts on how SAR has failed them over the years. The public relations blitz feels more focused on reassuring SAR parents that SAR did nothing wrong than on comforting alleged victims.

As a result, many online commentators took issue with those who asked these questions, saying essentially that SAR is a victim just like the students. The logic appears to be that just like we don’t blame a victim for abuse, we shouldn’t blame SAR.  I disagree – the children are victims and the parents are victims but the school’s role is not clear and we should not rush to declare the school blameless.

Into this fray, SAR invited David Pelcovitz to speak, a man most known in the survivor community for his robust defense of Evan Zauder, who was convicted of trafficking in child pornography. Knowledgeable survivors wondered how they could be so insensitive.

But what about the FBI? Didn’t they exonerate the schools of responsibility on Wednesday night?

The role of the FBI is to prosecute the obvious crime – the trading in child pornography on the Internet. We simply do not know if Skolnick had any in-person sexual contact with students at SAR, YOF, or anywhere else as experts tell us children delay disclosure of abuse, and many will deny it even when there is physical evidence. The FBI is also not in the business of evaluating a school’s safety policies, and despite assurances from the FBI that the school did nothing wrong, many parents may disagree. The FBI does not change gun law after a shooting. They prosecute the shooter, and change comes from our communities demanding it of our leaders.

Additionally, the FBI has jurisdiction for online abuse, but in-person abuse is typically outside their jurisdiction, and is left to local authorities who have shown time and again a reluctance to prosecute or investigate in the Orthodox community. In Baltimore, a man accused of sexual abuse was prosecuted by the US Attorney for illegal guns, but the alleged sexual crimes were left to local authorities to handle, authorities who struggle to prosecute in the cloistered Orthodox Jewish community.

The loud voices defending SAR and YOF are potentially silencing the quieter voices of SAR and YOF parents who may not agree. SAR is currently being sued by three people over allegations arising from alleged abuse by Stanley Rosenfeld in the 1970’s that was never prosecuted criminally. SAR commissioned a report on this case, but I am unable to find a list of policy changes due to this report. Some parents may follow the route of the alleged Rosenfeld victims and choose to hire lawyers to file civil litigation against SAR and YOF for Skolnick. As we have seen with the Catholic Church and the USOC, plaintiff’s attorneys will dig far deeper than the FBI to find the answers.

We should support these parents if they so choose.

It’s time we as a community ask ourselves what red flags are we ignoring in those who care for our children? What policies do our schools have in place to limit access, prevent grooming of children, and make the schools inhospitable for child abusers. It seems very possible that Skolnick’s alleged crime, one where he used children’s personal cell phones was enabled by YOF allowing teachers direct access to children outside of the school environment. The currently posted SAR policy appears to address harassment more than abuse, and could have many oversights in best practices. Parents should demand public review.

Last year a day school principal from a different school told me his school didn’t need child safety policies because “we would never hire someone who abused children”. Another principal told me that policies get in the way of “the loving relationship we encourage between teacher and student”  At the Prizmah conference this year (a network for Jewish Day Schools), the sessions to discuss child safety were nearly empty, despite it being a year in which several major day schools had been under scrutiny for allegations of abuse.

It is time for our umbrella organizations to require child safety policies as a condition for membership. It is time for the parents of children at YOF and SAR and every other day school worldwide to demand a comprehensive review of their child safety and anti-grooming policies by outside experts. Even if YOF and SAR did everything right, our response should still be focused on comforting the victims and not on school public relations. We should value our children’s safety above defending the reputations of our communal institutions.

About the Author
Joel Avrunin is a leader in building technical sales teams, with a passion for technology, teambuilding, coaching, and helping people develop their careers. Experiencing the heartache of being a father to a victim of clergy child sex abuse has motivated him to be a vocal proponent of robust child safety and anti-grooming policies in our schools, houses of worship, and summer camps. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and children, where he enjoys long runs down the Atlanta Beltline and hikes in the North Georgia mountains with his family.
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