That said, it is not the unique case that is the focus of my concern. My concern is with the approach too many of our school leaders take, which is that it is not only acceptable but preferable to remove students (and sometimes their siblings!) simply because they don’t “fit in.”
Over and over I hear that cruel refrain. He or she “doesn’t fit in.” Such a posture is beyond unacceptable. It’s reprehensible.
* * * * *
An educator is not merely a conveyor of information, a conduit of transferring data. An educator must be concerned with the neshamah of his student. An educator cannot simply remove a student without finding an alternative for that student. An educator must not be satisfied until that soul he refuses to handle, love, nourish and develop is registered in another school, one more caring and embracing.
An educator must think not just about the student but also about the student’s family. I have heard from parents who are frightened and overwhelmed as their child’s school essentially abandons their child and family. One mother who called me was reduced to tears. “I am at a loss. What am I supposed to do with my ninth-grade daughter? She was never a problem academically or behaviorally. Now they say she doesn’t fit in.”
Pay attention! This mother was not from some small out-of-the-way community. She was calling from the heart of Flatbush.
What am I to say to the parent who cries to me, “What am I to do with my child?”
The solution is not as simple as placing the student in another school. Too many times the insensitivity of the educator goes beyond his own school. He sees to it that the child is blacklisted. An informal “inter-principal” network removes the child not only from one school but blocks him from all of them.
As a result, students who need structure, who need the embrace of the community rather than its rejection, are left to while away their time at home or on the street, idle, frustrated, and bored. “And mind you,” a mother told me, “my daughter is not rebelling, tearing the place apart. At least not yet. She keeps asking me, ‘What happened, mommy?’ ‘What’s wrong with me?’ What am I to tell her?”
Is she to tell her daughter that her school was like a factory and she was expected to be a widget? Is she to tell her that she didn’t “fit the mold”? That is not a Jewish message.
How many do we lose to the Jewish community because they were shunned? I heard from one young adult, “I didn’t fit the mold and had a hard time, ultimately going off the derech. I later came back, though, with a Modern Orthodox hashkafa.”
He came back. He had the strength of conviction to seek another path to God and Torah; there are after all, shivim panim l’Torah, seventy faces (or perspectives) to Torah. But what of the countless others who don’t come back? What about those whose communities turned against them and told them, “You don’t belong”? What had they done? Was their transgression so great that they were shunned as though they were Cain?
Again, I applaud schools with high standards. Every good school must adhere to a code of conduct and behavior that covers academics as well as social and religious behavior. The question is, how do you respond to infractions? Is a minor infraction treated the same as a major one? Is the only response to an infraction to throw a student out?
Students who have been expelled from a yeshiva and blacklisted from others often find their way to public schools or local community colleges and, hurt and angry by how they were treated, gravitate toward a more secular experience.