Our community has been shaken by the revelation that a trusted teacher in a respected yeshiva day school in Riverdale, N.Y., is alleged to be a child predator. The discovery was deeply shocking and generated a public discussion about the safety of our children.
In truth, we shouldn’t be shocked. In September, The New York Times reported that there are 45 million images on the internet of children being sexually abused. The article’s authors contend that federal authorities are unable to manage this crisis. Additionally, the Times asserts that technology companies are not using available tools to stop the proliferation of this pernicious phenomenon. As new technology and encrypting services are introduced, the threat to our children has become a major crisis.
The problem is closer to home than we think. Recently, a Livingston Police Department youth detective explained to our students how a teen’s desire to amass hundreds of followers on Instagram can become an invitation to predators. While teens might be flattered by the attention of so many people, they often have no idea who lurks behind some innocent-sounding Instagram handles; they may, in fact, conceal deviants seeking to exploit children. The detective stated unequivocally that no teenager should have 1,000 followers. Unfortunately, the gratification and recognition teens receive from so many followers can eclipse their good judgment.
To help protect students, administrators and teachers have doubled down on stronger policies to protect youngsters. Some schools require teachers and administrators to take courses on electronic engagement. Some introduce strict policies that govern internet communication with students. Most schools have rules limiting the types of platforms that can be used to engage students; most also conduct criminal background checks.
Policies help protect children and teachers by establishing boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. When policies are violated, such instances can be a red flag to identify those who may have
But these well-meaning policies can also contribute to a false sense of security — after all, predators don’t follow policies.
Predators seek out opportunities to exploit children by choosing professions that will open the door for them to groom and exploit vulnerable young people. They are deviants who become teachers, predators who become scout leaders, miscreants who become youth workers, malicious frauds who become rabbis and priests. Once they have surreptitiously inserted themselves into an organization, they respect no policies, follow no rules. They are dangerous criminals who take advantage of every opportunity to find their prey and do harm.
The only way to really protect children is for children to learn to protect themselves. Although we as parents and administrators must try within our power to protect our children, there is no avoiding the fact that ultimately the strongest defense is to empower children to identify and call out predators. Most children by the age of 12 or 13 have smartphones. Many parents recognize the potential for harm inherent in these devices and use specially designed parent apps to monitor usage. But by the time our students are in their high school years, few of their phones are monitored by parents. Apps such as Snapchat and hidden apps that masquerade as calculators put children into the unfiltered and frightening world of the web with unfettered access to all its dark corners.
Children can easily be tricked into making risky decisions by the temptation of an immediate thrill or measure of gratification. Teenagers are often impulsive and frequently don’t have the reasoning power to consider implications when making fast decisions that impose a risk. Many don’t perceive the consequences that may result from cavalier attitudes toward these devices. They need our help.
We should take a lesson from the procedure to obtain a driver’s license. Before getting behind the wheel, new drivers must study the rules and demonstrate mastery over the basic principles of safe driving. After passing the written exam, they are eligible for a learner’s permit. When learning how to operate the vehicle, they must have a licensed driver at their side and take a minimum number of driving lessons with a professional instructor. When confident that they have the skills to obtain a driver’s license, they are tested to confirm they have completed the minimum steps necessary to ensure safe driving.
Clearly, we can’t ask the government to manage teens’ cell phone usage — but we can take a page out of their playbook.
Parents should consider having their children go through an initiation process before they can have unfettered access to the internet through their devices. Parents who provide their children with these gadgets should have explicit conversations with their children about the dangers of internet use and the absolute red lines they must not cross. Their usage should be monitored throughout their teen years and access to phones limited. Parents need to talk to teens often about their experiences on their devices, ask lots of questions about their smartphone use (even if this annoys them), and let them know they should report any suspicious activity to caring adults in their lives. Most important, they need to understand that they themselves are responsible for their usage; no adult can monitor a teen’s smartphone use.
Ultimately it is up to students to make good decisions. Schools and camps have some influence on children’s usage of devices, but the best way we can protect our children is to make sure that when they receive their phones they are educated about safe smartphone use. They need to be frequently reminded to be vigilant, deliberate, and thoughtful in the way they use their devices.
We can’t remove every danger placed in the paths of our children, but we must give them the tools to identify and avoid risks at all times and keep their own safety paramount.
Rabbi Eliezer E. Rubin is the Klatt Family Rosh Hayeshiva, head of school, at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston.