Even the most advanced security and screening measures cannot keep predators out of schools. This was among the reactions of horrified day school administrators in the aftermath of the Sept. 13 arrest of Rabbi Jonathan Skolnick, an associate principal at the highly regarded Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy (SAR) in Riverdale, N.Y., on charges of possession and production of child pornography and coercing a 14-year-old boy into sending him sexually explicit pictures.
“Predators are not following policies,” said Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, head of school at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston. “A predator will get through the tiniest space” in the policy. He said looking at screening and security in the aftermath of the SAR incident is the wrong response.
“It’s really about how children protect themselves,” Rubin said. “Even with the most extensive policies, it’s a matter of kids knowing how to exercise common sense and good judgment.”
Skolnick was a middle school associate principal who was “popular with the students,” according to an SAR parent who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.
In the draft of a letter to parents shared with NJJN, Rubin wrote that the Jewish community was “shocked” and “shaken by these heinous crimes.”
Local day schools have sophisticated screening tools designed to provide both cursory and full background checks on every visitor, from parent volunteers to full-time employees.
“Anyone with any contact with our children will be screened,” said Rubin.
Adam Shapiro, head of school at Golda Och Academy (GOA), provided a list of all the screening staff and visitors are subject to upon entering the school, which has two campuses in West Orange, a lower and an upper school.
A security guard is posted at the entrance when the buildings are open and visitors are screened through a system providing instant background checks. Employees undergo mandatory fingerprinting and background checks, state-mandated sexual misconduct disclosure screening, and safety training. In addition, GOA has rules in place regarding proper relationships between teachers and students.
Most of the day schools in the area provide similar, if not identical, screening.
“Gottesman RTW Academy adheres to the strictest standards when hiring all personnel and go through stringent checks including background checks, fingerprinting, and multi-faceted reference checks,” said Naomi Bacharach, director of institutional advancement at Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph.
But keeping children safe from sexual predators is not only dependent on employee background checks. Administrators agree that even the most advanced of these screenings cannot keep out predators, who know how to slip through these systems, made far easier if they have no criminal record, which is what background checks flag.
Instead, Rubin is focusing his attention on smart- phone use, social media, and students’ social-emotional learning. And he’s putting emphasis on the importance of parental engagement. “How did parents get out of this conversation?” he asked.
In his letter to high school families, Rubin writes that the “environment in which we are raising our children is more dangerous than ever and predatory threats are mostly obscured from caring adults’ attention.
“We implore you to set rules for your children’s smartphone use, talk to them often about their experiences on their gadgets, ask lots of questions about their smartphone use (even if this annoys them), and let them know that they should report any suspicious activity to caring adults in their lives.”
Rubin opens the school year every year with stern warnings and examples about smartphone use that can lead to trouble, from sexting gone wrong to being manipulated by advertisements (think vaping) to predatory behavior. In a cruel twist to the developing story at SAR, Skolnick was one of the staff members to speak with students about the “dangers of the internet,” according to the parent. “He taught the kids about being responsible digital citizens. The irony stings.”
Regarding the protection of students Rubin points out that there are people who enter the school, whether a FedEx delivery person or a plumber fixing an overflowing toilet, that do not go through the kind of intensive background checks that can take two weeks; he adds that he is dubious that every parent who volunteers to serve apples and honey to students before Rosh HaShanah has been screened.
“It’s [too] simple to say everyone gets screened,” he said.
(In fact, on an unrelated visit to GOA, NJJN could not be properly screened because the system was down. On that day, in its stead, security personnel requested a sign-in and a set of keys in exchange for a visitor’s pass.)
GOA’s Shapiro agreed that predators can slip in under the radar and pointed out that successful predators place themselves in positions of trust and authority with ready access to targets, who can be groomed for abuse. That’s why he’s a fan of New Jersey’s 2018 “Pass the Trash” law, he told NJJN. It requires schools to check applicants’ employment history for allegations of child abuse or sexual misconduct to prevent a suspicious employee from leaving one school and being hired at another.
Although schools in states without a similar law sometimes don’t respond to requests for information, Shapiro said, the N.J. law can work as a deterrent by keeping abusers from submitting applications for employment.
At the Jewish Educational Center (JEC) in Elizabeth, the principals, psychologists, and social workers at all of the schools’ divisions (Jewish Educational Center Lower and Middle School, Bruriah High School, and Rav Teitz Mesivta Academy) joined a webinar Monday night organized by UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Education Project, and Prizmah (an umbrella organization for day schools). Administrators and staff from day schools around the country participated.
“We have to know we are doing everything we can for our students to feel safe and our parents to feel secure,” said JEC executive director Steve Karp.
Hannah Dreyfus, staff writer at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication, contributed reporting.
Related Articles: SAR students unearth possible Skolnick aliases