November 6, 2003
Milken High Learns From Video Scandal
Milken Community High School is facing a series of complex issues and emotions following the administration's discovery a few weeks ago that three students had filmed sexually explicit videos and then shared them with other students.
The three students, two boys and a girl in 10th and 11th grades, were expelled.
Parents and teachers were devastated to learn of the incident, which follows two scandals last year, one in which a student hacked into computers to erase a senior's SAT score, and another in which a girl left the school after allegations of promiscuity damaged her reputation.
The events have raised questions about whether it is realistic or fair to hold students at a Jewish high school to a different standard than the society at large.
"Children will be children, and some children make some terrible choices," said Rennie Wrubel, head of school at Milken, which is associated with Stephen S. Wise Temple. Wrubel said that while students are given the tools to make ethical decisions, the adolescent drive and societal influences can present formidable obstacles.
"I think what you have when you come to a Jewish day school is the opportunity for your children each and every day to be discussing values and ethics and morals.... We can't prevent every problem from happening, but we can be there for our community and for our children."
The school, with 834 students in grades 7-12, has responded to the latest incident with an aggressive openness, holding an assembly for parents last Thursday, having continuing coffees with parents and dialoging with students in Jewish studies classes and in meetings with faculty advisers. The school has consulted with professionals in areas from mental health to public relations.
"Our first concern was to get the community involved, because this is not only a school issue, this is a community issue and this is parenting issue," Wrubel said. "We felt it was very important to bring us all together in partnership to talk about how we deal with situations like this and other situations that could arise at any time, because these are adolescents and it is their job to push boundaries, and we know that."
Administrators found out about the videos about three weeks ago when parents came forward saying their child had viewed the DVD on a school computer.
The school interviewed students who had reportedly viewed the DVD, and later the three who were in the film. All three admitted their involvement. Roger Fuller, the upper-school principal, and Jonathan Cassie, the 11th-grade dean, conducted the interviews with parents present, and no one from the administration viewed the videos.
Since the case involves minors, law enforcement officials were called in, though Wrubel declined to say which agencies were involved, fearing it could impede the investigation.
Wrubel said the school has corroborated the existence of two videos and possibly a third involving one of the students. The school does not know how many copies were made. While it is believed the DVDs were only shared with a select group of students, Wrubel said there were unverified rumors that the video has been posted on the Internet.
The videos were taped in May and June of last year. Wrubel said that many students had heard about it, but not seen it.
Milken, a school that fosters open communication between faculty and students, is trying to figure out how so many kids knew for so long without coming forward.
"It is disturbing to me as an educator and as an adult to think that students would know of this and not come forward, and yet from our dialogues we've opened up. We know that adolescents view their own world with a great deal of privacy and feel there are things that happen in their world that adults should not be privy to," Wrubel said.
One 12th-grader said students knew of the videos only through rumors, and so were reluctant to tell. Others just didn't want to get involved.
"Everyone was just pretty disgusted. A lot of people didn't want to see it and overall we were kind of grossed out by it," she said, adding that these incidents should not define the student body as a whole, which takes seriously the moral education they receive at Milken.
"I have friends in public school and these kind of things are so much more common there, and so much worse stuff goes on," she said.
Some parents praised how Milken is using the incident to open dialogue with parents and students on morals and values.
"At any high school things are going to happen, and you judge a school by how they respond, and Milken has responded in an exemplary manner," said one mother of a 10th-grader and 12th-grader.
When this incident broke, the school set aside classes and special sessions where kids could work through their emotions about the complex issues of sexuality, dignity and lashon harah (gossip and slander).
"They didn't go overboard and didn't give sermons or anything like that," the 12th-grader said. "They just brought it up in Jewish studies class, which seemed like the place to talk about ethics and things."
Teachers let the kids' emerging emotions and thoughts guide the discussion, but they also tried to help them stay rooted in core Jewish values, according to Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin, rabbinic director of the high school. Administrators are hoping that both the immediate reactions and the long-term curricular changes will help the students better grasp the difficult issues of sexuality and self-esteem.
Sex education and discussions of intimacy and relationships are part of a progressive program throughout high school, in health classes co-taught by rabbis, in Jewish studies classes and through informal programming.
Using both traditional and liberal source material, discussions about platonic and intimate relationships focus on human dignity and ideas about kedushah, making things holy by keeping them elevated and exclusive; the notion of tzniut, of privacy and internality; and the need to stay away from situations that can lead to deception, Bernat-Kunin said.
"We are looking at pluralistic tradition that does not have single position on sexuality, but certainly has agreed upon boundaries and shared values within which students are deliberating. In the end, the sexual decision making is theirs -- they have autonomy -- but we are trying our best to create a conversation in which that decision making is done in the context of Jewish sources, Jewish values and Jewish ideals," Bernat-Kunin said.
Wrubel said: "We want our children to value their self-respect and to care about who they are. We teach our children that we are all born be'tzelem Elohim [in God's image], yet we see things like this and we have to pause and say we need to work harder on getting kids to feel better about who they are and the great potential they have, and not to resort to the social pressures that these kids obviously resorted to."