Jewish Journal

Not in Our Day School

Not in Our Day School, Jewish students and teachers wonder whether Littleton could happen here

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on May. 20, 1999 at 8:00 pm

Not long after two teenagers committed mass murder at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., 150 9th through 12th graders gathered for a town hall meeting at Shalhevet High School. However, Nathan Reynolds, headmaster of general studies, didn't want to talk about Columbine. "I want to talk about us," he said.

Specifically, Reynolds wanted to discuss whether some teens felt alienated and excluded at Shalhevet. At first, many of the students were defensive. Sure, the coed, Orthodox school has cliques, just like every other school, the teenagers said. But students tend to feel a sense of belonging in the close-knit Shalhevet community, they insisted.

Reynolds wasn't so sure. "You don't see yourselves as cruel, and you say, there's no cruelty here," he charged. "But [you have to ask yourself], how many times, in the name of teasing, have I really hurt somebody?"

All around Los Angeles this past month, Jewish students, day schools and youth programs have been dealing with the aftermath of Columbine.

At Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, children commemorated the Colorado victims at services. At a Jewish Big Brothers Shabbaton, children said the kaddish and wondered if mass murder could happen at their schools. The response was that anything can happen anywhere, said Steve Meyerson, JBB community outreach coordinator.

A similar message emerged at the Harold M. Schulweis Valley Beth Shalom Day School in Encino, where Rabbi Edward Feinstein led a discussion about how to recognize students who are in trouble. Each of the kindergarten through 6th-grade classes completed a list of "25 ways to deal with anger." And when parents telephoned to inquire about school safety, administrators replied that security is vigilant and that strangers are quickly stopped and assessed on campus.

"I would certainly like to say that '[Columbine] couldn't happen here,'" said Joyce Black, the school's general studies director. "But our students are real children, and exclusion can happen anywhere. ...I think the biggest impact of Columbine, for our students, is the realization that this kind of violence can happen in affluent areas."

At Milken Community High School, which endured a bomb threat the week after Littleton, the students are already savvy to the idea that violence can happen at home, said Laurie Bottoms, the assistant head of school. But the sheer magnitude of the Littleton tragedy unnerved the teenagers, and the trauma was exacerbated by the subsequent bomb scare.

At a school meeting, one girl said that she has never felt so vulnerable. She pointedly looked at Bottoms and the other administrators and asked, "Do we have enough security?" Bottoms told The Journal that, in fact, tight security has been intensified at Milken. There is an improved system for identifying cars that don't belong in the parking lot, for example, and the school's evacuation plan has been slightly revised. Since Columbine and the bomb threat, Bottoms added, students are no longer blasé about fire drills.

A number of Los Angeles Orthodox schools, however, had a different response to Columbine. At a recent meeting of yeshiva principals, Dr. Michael Held, director of the Orthodox counseling program of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, found that administrators regarded Littleton as a terrible tragedy, but one that could not happen at Orthodox schools.

"From the time they are small, we train our children to control their yetzer harah (evil inclination)," says Rabbi Shlomo Harrosh, principal of Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy.

As observant Jews, "our children are much more attuned to a healthy values system," said Rabbi Dovid Landesman, the boys school principal at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles. Taking the example of Littleton, the discussion in YULA Torah studies classes was "How much do we become part of American culture, and how much do we remain apart?"

At Shalhevet, meanwhile, Reynolds had a message for his students in the aftermath of Littleton. He urged the teenagers to engage in random acts of kindness, rather than cruelty.

The headmaster described how, as a child, he once prevented a bully from beating a nerdy classmate. "Russell was round and soft, and he carried a briefcase when no one knew what briefcases were," Reynolds recalled. "He wore big, horn-rimmed glasses... and the class bully picked on him terribly."

Until one day, when Reynolds, who says he wasn't particularly brave but happened to be taller than the bully, stood in the way. "I said 'No' publicly, and in front of all my friends," Reynolds said. The bully stopped picking on Russell.

Many years later, Reynolds received a telephone call from a man in Orange County. The man turned out to be Russell, who by then had become a social worker. "I will never forget what you did for me," Russell told Reynolds. "And I wanted to call to say, 'Thank you.'"

The Battlefield of Mental Health

By Lisa Brooks

After the Littleton slayings, a number of teachers and administrators at local schools in Los Angeles called Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles for help. They wanted our mental health professionals, trained in critical incident debriefings, to soothe nerves and psyches. They counseled the teachers with frayed nerves and talked to students who were angry, sad, and frightened. The teachers were concerned about the difficulty of coordinating information when students were in so many different classes throughout the day. Our social workers helped one school to develop a centralized system for reporting troubling incidents.

Those of us with backgrounds in the mental health field remember the days when access to counseling was at its peak. That was during the 1970s, when voters and politicians felt it was tremendously useful for troubled people to turn to counseling for help. Prevention was considered cost-effective. Guidance counselors were available at many schools. California was known throughout the country for its outstanding mental health services.

That all changed under Ronald Reagan's governorship. The state shut down mental hospitals with the plan that they would be replaced by community-based services. But the 1980s passed, then the 1990s, yet the funding for mental health services, both in the Jewish and general communities has not kept pace with the need.

Still, our social workers, continue to be faced with troubled clients, with couples whose relationships are on the brink of disaster, with adolescents who are alienated and unhappy, and with persons of all ages suffering from anxiety and depression.

Now, television is turning to mental health professionals to talk about how to identify and treat children who are violent and perhaps homicidal. Many professionals -- social workers, marriage and family counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists -- at JFS and elsewhere have been marching through the minefields of human emotions these past decades, brave and well-trained soldiers in ever-diminishing ranks in a poorly financed war against mental illness. Our job is to help people to learn better ways to cope. And we know that even the healthiest among us sometimes need professional help.

With young people, our job is often to help them learn how to deal with their feelings -sometimes feelings of rage and alienation - and to help them learn new ways of communicating with their peers and their parents. We know that the earlier we start, the stronger the chance of success. That's what preventive mental health is about. But at whatever stage a professional is able to have an impact, we are convinced there is still hope for change. The questions are often varied: How do you deal with a difficult child? How do you know if your child is exhibiting dangerous signs? These are the behaviors that JFS and other mental health professionals are trained to analyze. That is why, when a crisis occurs, these experts are called in to debrief and then asked to stay longer to help develop systems that can withstand the next crisis.

Now that communities across the nation are outraged and frightened, can we hope that new resources will be targeted to fight for better mental health in all of our neighborhoods? Will we recognize that prevention, both in the Jewish and larger community, is so much better and less costly than responding to the next crisis after it occurs?

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