Child protection laws in the U.S. vary from state to state, particularly as they relate to yeshivas and nonpublic schools, but in the main they include the following:
● Corporal punishment and sexual touching are illegal.
● Fingerprinting and criminal background checks are required of all employees.
● Mandatory reporting to government authorities of sex abuse and violent incidents.
● State registries of all school employees found guilty of sex abuse or violence.
I am a lawyer who for the past few years has been advocating that our yeshivas comply with all existing child protection laws and, where needed, that our states enact new laws. Sadly, my efforts have been met with apathy, indifference, negativity and cynicism. I call this the “m’raglim” attitude.
The m’raglim were the spies who returned to Moshe and the Jews with a negative report about the Land of Canaan. The people there are giants, they said, and we are like grasshoppers. With the exception of Yehoshua Bin Nun and Kalev Ben Yefuneh, the spies had given up the fight before it even began, and for this we Jews received great punishment. Rashi calls the spies r’shaim, evil ones. A negative attitude can be the cause of a great downfall.
The legal scene in New York is, quite frankly, not a strong one for nonpublic-school children. Last year, however, it was made a little bit stronger when our State Legislature passed a new law that – for the first time in 70 years – “authorizes” our nonpublic schools to fingerprint and background-check their employees. (A state labor law, in effect since 1937, bars private employers from fingerprinting employees unless another law allows or requires it.)
The key word is “authorizes.” The new law, unlike laws in other states, does not require fingerprinting – that’s something left to the discretion of individual yeshivas and other nonpublic schools.
This year, my new group-in-formation, the New York State Yeshiva Parents Association, is asking for more new laws. In February, we sent letters to selected legislative leaders and Governor Spitzer asking for mandatory fingerprinting so that our schools will no longer employ convicted sex offenders and other dangerous criminals. (The legislative leaders include Assembly Speaker Silver, and, in the Senate, Majority Leader Bruno, Deputy Majority Leader Skelos, and Education Committee Chairman Saland.)
We also asked for a mandatory reporting law. In 25 states – New York is not one of them – all clergy are mandated reporters, required to report evidence of sex abuse or violence to child welfare authorities. In 18 states – and this is remarkable – all persons who reasonably suspect child abuse are mandated reporters. But again, not in New York.
In New York, public school officials are mandated reporters, but not nonpublic school employees. Thus, New York is among the small minority of states whose laws do not require nonpublic, religious schools to report sex abuse to state child welfare authorities.
My February 2007 letter to the State Legislature makes a modest proposal. We are asking for neither an “all person” nor an “all clergy” mandatory reporting law – just one for nonpublic-school employees. In this manner, we hope to create a consensus and avoid an inevitable confrontation with ultra-conservative elements who would object to a broad mandatory reporting law.
Who, after all, could reasonably object to a law that essentially establishes every school, public and nonpublic, in our state as a safe oasis for children? Such a law would be entirely consistent with the ancient common-law doctrine of in loco parentis (Latin for “in place of the parent”). When a school assumes physical custody of a child, it is in loco parentis, and owes the same high duty of care that a parent ordinarily owes a child.
Finally, my letter asks for a nonpublic-school disciplinary system that is comparable to the public school system. All nonpublic schools should be required to have child safety and abuse prevention plans. All nonpublic-school employees should be registered with the State Education Department, and when credible complaints of abuse or violence are filed, disciplinary hearings should be held. Our yeshivas have no such apparatus, and it is thus no surprise that sexual predators have been known to move from one yeshiva to another.