July 10, 2003
When Bad Things Happen to Good Institutions
When a University of Judaism (UJ) male administrator and a female student fell together from the second-story window of a Pico-Robertson apartment, hitting the concrete below and landing in the hospital, the story made the news and set community tongues wagging.
At the time, officials at UJ didn't comment on the May 26 event, despite the fact that others did.
"There are loads of rumors," UJ communications director Iris Waskow said in May. "But we really have nothing definitive at this point, other [than] there were two people who were hurt, and our hearts go out to them and their families."
The troublesome public relations problem is not unique to the UJ. In the past six months alone, two local Jewish high schools had to deal with scandals in which students flagrantly violated the institutions' ethics and rules: Administrators at Milken Community High School were forced to contend with a computer hacking incident and sexual harassment; at Shalhevet High School, a group of seniors brought marijuana brownies to a school Shabbaton.
In the past, community institutions might have tried to keep such incidents under wraps while quietly doling out punishments. The public had assumed schools that taught Torah values would be free of problems dogging secular institutions; therefore, school administrators feared that scandals would damage the reputation of an institution and harm its enrollment and fundraising efforts.
But in this era of instant communications, keeping incidents under wraps is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Today, Jewish institutions face the challenge of acknowledging and dealing with embarrassing problems when they occur, while trying to maintain their values, integrity and reputations.
Sexual-abuse scandals in the religious world -- such as the accusations that recently resurfaced concerning Rabbi Mattis Weinberg's alleged abuse of students in Yeshivat Kerem in Santa Clara 20 years ago, or the sex-abuse charges brought against Rabbi Baruch Lanner during his tenure at the National Council of Synagogue Youth in New York -- have brought into the open issues that had been previously swept under the rug.
Yet how these and others issues are dealt with reveals much about an individual institution and its relationship to students, parents and the community at large.
At Milken, for example, after the school discovered that one student had hacked into another's transcripts, administrators called in the victim's parents and consulted with them on how to deal with the issue. The school assisted the victim and expelled the perpetrator, said a person close to the case who wished to remain anonymous. (Out of concern for the minors involved, The Journal has chosen not to publicize the details of the incident.)
Milken principal Dr. Rennie Wrubel, who declined to comment to The Journal on the incident, then explained to the perpetrator's class the decision to expel the student.
In the other Milken case, where allegations of promiscuity damaged a student's reputation so badly that the pupil left Milken, the school called in Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom to talk to all the classes about the gravity of the situation.
"I told them that they had a responsibility as Jews and as people to speak with gentleness and respect to each other ... because we share a common space," Feinstein said. The principal also spoke to the students and expressed great concern over what happened.
Some students think that both incidents at Milken are just the tip of the iceberg, and the school must not ignore other serious issues, such as snobbery, cliques and harmful pranks.
"That's how the administration spins it to kids -- that this is an aberration," another student said. "They aren't going to say that there is all that stuff going on all the time."
But others were more positive about the school's culture and ethical instruction.
"I can't imagine the school handling it in a more positive way," one student said.
While Milken dealt with both situations publicly, it did not involve the wider parent body of the school in its decisions. Shalhevet High School, on the other hand, took a different tack, opting for a more open and aggressive approach.
When the school's administrators discovered that some students had brought pot brownies to an 11th- and 12th-grade Shabbaton, they canceled the weekend getaway and sent letters to parents.
Shalhevet's acting principal of general studies addressed the student body and asked the students involved to confess. The school also sent the principal's remarks home to all the parents and invited them to a town hall meeting to discuss the issue.
However, the school was divided on how to deal with the students involved in the incident. In a statement to parents, the school said that those who "used or shared drugs" would be referred to a drug counselor and required to perform community service, but would be allowed to stay in school. The statement also said that those who had "purchased or brought drugs to the Shabbaton" would "face immediate expulsion."
The statement did little to quell some of the fears that circulated among parents and students. The tough approach raised major issues and stirred strong concern among some in the Shalhevet community.
According to one student, "It was pretty bad. The word got out into the community, and it didn't make the school look good. Some parents were calling for [the principal] to expel everyone who was involved."
At school, the seniors felt differently. They thought that expelling the students who bought the drugs and made the brownies was unfair.
But after town hall meetings with parents and students, plus meetings with the seniors, Shalhevet opted not to expel any of the students, all of whom came forward. The students who purchased the marijuana were suspended from school and did not participate in graduation ceremonies, although they were allowed to graduate, pending completion of all their work and 300 hours of community service. (One of the students is reportedly doing his service at a drug rehabilitation center.)
While some parents thought that the punishment was not tough enough, others were pleased with the heightened awareness at the school as a result of the marijuana scandal.
"Now they can see the reality of the situation, and they are going to have drug education next year," a student said. "At the meetings, the whole school came together, and everyone got up and started sharing their stories about why they don't do drugs. Our school is based on the idea of being a community, and you really had that communal feeling."
In the end, the school's approach of handling the issues publicly with the parents and students primarily worked in its favor. It became a point of unity at the school.
"Overall, it was handled beautifully," said a parent. "The punishment fit the crime, and these town hall meetings, where students have a large voice and moral dilemmas are discussed, are something the school should be proud of. It does give the students more voice and, hopefully, a deeper sense of morality."
At the UJ, a PR representative told The Journal that the school would "tell the truth" about the window fall once it receives the police report about the incident. The case is not a criminal one, so the report will be released censored due to privacy issues and embarrassing details (if any) will be blacked out. Since it takes a few months to receive a police report, chances are the gossip mills will have stopped turning by then.
Michael Sitrick, of Sitrick and Co., a public relations firm known for its work in crisis management -- or, as Sitrick calls it "sensitive situations" -- said that these types of incidents would not seriously damage a school's reputation in the long term if the school takes concrete measures to ensure they aren't repeated.
"The first thing that has to be done is to make sure that the school investigates what happened, and understands what happene, and determines whether the rumors and the allegations are true," Sitrick said. "What they need to do is to demonstrate that they have taken action to correct the problem."
"People understand that other people are human," he continued, "and you are going to have infractions and lapses of judgment, and you are going to have kids do things like that, [but they want to know] what the school is doing to make sure that it can't happen again."
Russell Robinson, CEO of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), who came into the organization after it weathered allegations that millions of dollars were unaccounted for, agreed with Sitrick. "Nonprofits can't be run as mom-and-pop operations anymore, and the best way of dealing with anything is to be open, direct and informative," said Robinson from New York. "Part of what happened at the JNF was that their system of accounting was so archaic that the questions came faster than the answers could come out. You need to have a transparent organization, and you need a system that provides answers when you need them. Did [these allegations] hurt us? Yes. Did they help us? Yes."
While openness sounds like a good policy, it is not always a viable one. David Lehrer, who was regional director of the Anti Defamation League when the scandal broke that the organization kept "spy files" on people, said that nonprofits had certain restrictions on being open.
"There are certain things that you have to worry about in an alleged scandal," he said. "The first is the legal implications of what has transpired; the second is dealing with the press and the PR implications; and third, in a nonprofit, you have a board and your constituents to answer to, and in the case of Jewish organizations they also have to answer to a New York office, which might not understand what is going on in the West ... and sometimes [these things] are in conflict, and it makes things quite complicated."
For some, these incidents are communal opportunities, not crises.
"It's a positive thing," said one Shalhevet parent. "The community can take off its blinders and see that there is no safe place where people can assume that their children will not be experimenting. This is all a wake-up call for educators to be more available and for parents to communicate with their children."