Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, recently wrote a thought-provoking post about whose responsibility it is to monitor the behavior of students off premises and to react when there is degenerate behavior. He argued that recently, parents have abdicated that responsibility to the schools and that parents need to reclaim their role. He also expressed the belief that schools should not expel students who engage in inappropriate behavior outside of school as these expulsions have become a marketing tool, a failed deterrent and an admission that schools don’t have the resources to deal with problematic children.
I agree with a lot of what Rabbi Pruzansky wrote, and I think that there is another more fundamental obstacle that is holding schools back from dealing appropriately with our children who engage in this behavior. That is, the lack of effective partnership between educators and parents. It should not be a question of who will police this behavior, the school or parents. For some children and in some contexts, parents are more effective in monitoring their children’s behavior. In others, the schools can take a more effective role.
Additionally, I don’t know if there should come a point when students should be expelled for problematic behaviors they engage in outside of the school setting. Certainly, barring any truly exceptional circumstances, a student should not be expelled if the school has not found another Yeshiva day school for the student to attend. Even in this instance, if done, explusion should truly be a matter of last resort. At the same time, this must be balanced with other parents’ rights to send their children to a Yeshiva day school where the rest of the student body exemplifies their values, inside and out of school.
Before coming up with proposed solutions to these ever-growing challenges, we need to take a step back and create real, meaningful dialogue with the stakeholders involved – our parents and educators. We need to have difficult and meaningful conversations about what each party can do and should do to address the challenges our students face, and we need to regularly reassess the effectiveness of proposed solutions. But in order to do this in a real way, schools must view parents as stakeholders and not as consumers. If schools view their parent bodies simply as consumers, the dialogue between them will be stunted. Schools may be reluctant to engage in serious conversations about the challenges they face, because doing so will reveal their own shortcomings and risks making their school seem weak in the eyes of their parent body. And parents themselves may not wish to engage in serious dialogue with the school if they fear that doing so shines an uncomfortable spotlight on the challenges they face as parents and disciplinarians.
The truth is that admitting weakness is the first step to achieving growth. Many of our Biblical villains ultimately found their downfall in their inability to acknowledge their own shortcomings and flaws. Pharaoh hardened his heart and did not free the Bnei Yisrael because he could not admit that his entire religious worldview of subjugating the Bnei Yisrael was incorrect. His refusal to admit this weakness led to the destruction of his entire Egyptian kingdom.
In the case of our children and our schools, we all want the same result. But collaboration is impossible when either side feels unsafe admitting weakness and neither is willing to acknowledge their role in correcting course. In this mistrustful environment, each side asks the other to shoulder all the burden, when in fact neither should be doing all the policing or parenting alone. When we all put our defense down, when we accept that we are truly in this together, only then can we begin to work together and have a more informed conversation for the benefit of our beautiful children.