Monday, March 4, 2013

Hebrew Theological School Apologizes to Sexual Abuse Survivor Put on Notice

Last Thursday, Kaylie* (a pseudonym) was placed on notice for misconduct at Hebrew Theological College for disclosing on Facebook that she is a survivor of sexual abuse. She had felt that she must stand against the attitude that survivors are defective. Ironically, her dean declared very coldly as result that Kaylie* thus appeared “less than human”, “besmirching” her peers and school, and ordered Kaylie’s* silence under the threat of expulsion. After an outcry against her insensitive, outrageous remarks to and action against Kaylie*, Dean Esther Shkop of Hebrew Theological College’s Torani L’Banot school offered an apology yesterday, as well as hope that things will be different in the future:



Dear Kaylie*,

Over the last number of difficult days, regret and a stirring sadness have overtaken me because of the insensitive and harsh email I recently sent you.  I ask for your mechila [forgiveness] and extend you my deepest apology.

Inasmuch as [Torani L'Banot] has always endeavored to provide all of our students with full academic, emotional, and spiritual support - taking into account the variety of life experiences - it has become clear to me that we must do a better job in creating both the appropriate environment and the systems necessary to support our students in their greatest hour of need.  I do maintain our position that it is not in keeping with the standards of Tznius [modesty] and fundamentally unsafe to post intimate information about oneself and others on social media.  [Torani L'Banot], therefore, provides a private and safe forum for support and guidance.

We know that the Almighty places tests before us not only to draw closer to the Creator of the World, but to bolster our capabilities in improving the lives of His children, particularly those that are in great pain and in need of our help and support.  We will be assembling the expertise needed to make recommendations to the Board and to me on the resources and support systems we must improve to serve our cherished students to the fullest extent of our capability.

We as Jewish educators of young adults are on the front-line of life’s many challenges.  Tragically, the scourge of sexual abuse and misconduct has not spared the Orthodox community and its precious children.  We, therefore, must continue to be an institution that sets the standard in helping and supporting our students as they demonstrate the bravery and fortitude required for the healing process.  This is the test the Ribbono Shel O’lam [Lord of the Universe] has clearly put before me in the wake of my private email to you.

Sincerely,

Dr. Esther M. Shkop

Dr Shkop’s largely impersonal, boilerplate email may be lacking clarification of policy, unequivocal rescission of disciplinary action and, more importantly, complete disavowal of the suggestion that being sexually abused or talking about it reflects negatively on the survivor and is somehow indecency. However, it does offer a personal apology and the promise of better resources and support for students in general. Dr Shkop has recognized the damaging power of her earlier words, attitudes and actions and undertaken that she and the school will respond appropriately in the future. It takes courage to recognize wrongdoing and great conviction to avoid it in the future.

Dr Shkop’s courage and conviction here is a fitting and inspiring response to Kaylie’s* own. Despite negative comments and insults hurled her way, first by her dean, then by commentators who had read nothing more than that she dared admit that she had been sexually abused, Kaylie* has remained strong and steadfast, delivering a very important message: we cannot and will not be silent about sexual abuse or our communities’ reactions to the topic and survivors.

Kaylie* will continue to take a stand against sexual abuse and mistreatment of survivors, both on facebook and her new blog, kaylieofthewhistleblowers.blogspot.com. She is relieved that her academic career is no longer threatened. On this experience, Kaylie* reflects:

I’ve been told to keep quiet for as long as I can remember. My rapist told me not to tell. I could not, but I needed to. That night, I stood in front of my father and tried to tell him what had happened — tried to find some way to explain what went on while he and my mother weren’t home. I had no way to explain what my rapist had done. I could not put terms to the body parts, and no one ever warned me that what had happened was wrong. I only knew that my rapist had tried to manipulate me into stripping for him by telling me he would give me eight dollars and that, after he raped me, he did not pay up. I told my father that I was owed eight dollars… but I could not explain why. I was 7, and these were things that were not talked about.

That silence, that tugging feeling of anguish in my throat with no words to set it free, has stayed with me for years. I was told to not tell my parents. When I finally started speaking about any of the pain within me, I was told to not talk about it to others.

Over the years, I have made a tremendous amount of progress with my therapist. There are many organizations that can help survivors, but they can only help the ones they know about. What about the ones they do not know about? Who will help them? They can only be helped once they reached out... and they can only reach out when they know it is possible to. I came out because I had been one of the girls which were under the radar. They had no way of knowing about me. They have no way about knowing about so many. That's why I came out.

Silence is overrated. There's nothing golden about it when it's hiding the worst pain.

I was shocked because of the underlying message of the first email — that we, as survivors, are somehow the bad ones. That was the very same attitude I had taken a stand against in coming out as a survivor; it breeds silence and allows the attitude to fester from the silent anguish inside victims. This pain and the fear of being expelled from college was what drove me to contact Chaim Levin.

By bringing public attention to what was happening at school, I hoped that this attitude might be reexamined and that I would be able to remain in a school which I had come to truly love. HTC is a wonderful place — the faculty is professional while retaining a level of friendliness towards the students, and every single professor is genuinely interested in the welfare and the progress of the students, as is Dr. Shkop.

The choice Dr. Shkop made when she emailed me her beautiful apology was a wise one — she put her institution at the forefront of schools taking steps to protect and support survivors of sexual abuse. I greatly admire her strength in admitting to her mistakes, and I am very happy we were able to reach a d├ętente. The compromises we both made were not necessarily enormous, but the ripple effect of her actions will, God willing, make an effect which is more than enormous. Pain and darkness can only be fought with a passion for the light, and that passion is something Dr. Shkop exudes in abundance. The darkness every survivor has lived in can only last so long, and, with every step forward, another bit of pain is alchemized into something truly precious — hope.


**update***

Hebrew Theological College released this statement on their website this afternoon.

Tragically and painfully, sexual abuse and misconduct is a plague in our world and our Orthodox community has not been spared. Throughout its history, Hebrew Theological College has always provided caring support and guidance for its students. We are proud of this tradition and are committed to continue to actively demonstrate the highest ideals of Torah and Chesed. Regrettably, in a recent communication with a student who enrolled in our school with a past history of being a victim of sexual abuse, we failed to exercise appropriate sensitivity. As a consequence, we regard this as a catalyst for immediate action, growth and institutional improvement.

Our Board and Executive Leadership are now in the process of identifying a cross section of experts to present recommendations to us that will enable us to develop the resources and support systems needed so that we are positioned to the fullest extent possible to help our students through the healing process.


16 comments:

  1. "fundamentally unsafe to post intimate information about oneself and others on social media."

    Which still leaves me very curious about the person who got to Dr. Shkop. What others?

    It makes me angry when in the course of an apology this educator lectures a victim on what is and isn't safe as if the victim is somehow naive about danger. It smacks of insincerity.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Mr. Levin,

    I must respectfully disagree with your characterization of Dr. Shkop's message as a "largely impersonal, boilerplate email". I did not read it that way, and based on her reaction, neither did "Kaylie".

    Dorron Katzin
    Chicago

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. An EMAIL anticipating almost verbatim a public relations and institutional policy statement can indeed be both a largely impersonal, boilerplate message and still favorable.

      Those who rush to suggest that all is well now and skirt the gravity of what has happened are best left to put their heads in the sand rather than defend specifics. If there really is a question about whether the EMAIL is impersonal, one need only read it. One can for example count the number of 'I/me/my's and 'you/your's in this email compared the shorter first. There are 4 'you/your's in this email; there are 22 in the first. And those 22 are far from trivial, e.g.:

      YOU have chosen to identify YOURSELF by YOUR pathology.

      YOU no longer appear as a full human - but rather as "case study" of a young woman warped by her childhood experiences, and is thus identified wholly by that past.

      YOU seem too intent on wallowing in the past, and drawing sick attention to YOURSELF for all of the wrong reasons.

      At the same, YOU identify YOURSELF as a student of Hebrew Theological College, and by association besmirch YOUR peers as well as YOURSELF.

      The first email is a sickeningly personal, misguided indictment. The second does nothing to address that. The only specific wrong acknowledged is that the first email was "insensitive and harsh" -- an understatement suggesting it was not the message but rather the tone that was errant. Indeed, it impersonally maintains "our position that it is not in keeping with the standards of Tznius [modesty] and fundamentally unsafe to post intimate information about oneself and others on social media. [Torani L'Banot], therefore, provides a private and safe forum for support and guidance."

      Is HTC safe? Why does Kaylie state she is now relieved? Does it provide support or guidance? Were those even sought? Who has "disclosed" "intimate information about oneself or others"?

      The apology is, in a word, sickening. It would still presuppose without comment that being sexually abused and/or acknowledging is INDECENT and without consultation with Kaylie that her resolution to come out as a survivor was thoughtless, that she cannot be trusted to act in her own best interests and that she is in need of expert help. Instead of being an willful, bitter iconoclastic fool as in the first email, she has become a mindless victim to be pitied; her pathologization only continues.

      But, she is no victim. She is a survivor. She is in college. She is trying to reach out to others. She is well on her way. That should be obvious.

      As is the fact that community responses to survivors have been largely and completely inappropriate. Until we actually reflect on the attitudes we have and/or express publicly, there can be no real change. Denial of remaining and valid criticism does nothing but perpetuate the status quo.

      Did Hebrew Theological College recognize its actual error? Can it avoid it in the future? I hope so. Regardless, it has pledged to consider the matter thoughtfully and to support its students. And, Kaylie gets to remain a student. Those are favorable outcomes quite irrespective of the manner in which they came about.

      Delete
  3. "I do maintain our position that it is not in keeping with the standards of Tznius [modesty] and fundamentally unsafe to post intimate information about oneself and others on social media."

    Standards of tznius? Her "standards of tznius" are code words for let's cover-up the problem and deal with it quietly. People like Dr. Shkop need to be publicly rebuked and fired.

    ReplyDelete
  4. To Anonymous 9:36 AM:

    She also wrote:
    "We will be assembling the expertise needed to make recommendations to the Board and to me on the resources and support systems we must improve to serve our cherished students to the fullest extent of our capability."

    I hope that the new information she will obtain will cause her to modify her opinion about Tzniyus. I think the safety concerns are legitimate. It is something every survivor should consider when deciding whether or not to discuss what was done to him or her publicly.

    Dorron Katzin
    Chicago

    ReplyDelete
  5. I agree with much of this post but with a few qualifiers. I think the "apology was not so much grudging as limited and somewhat miscast. Dr. Shkop recognized the right of a survivor to publicly disclose the fact of abuse but still has trouble with the use of internet as a medium for that sort of disclosure. At the same time I give her credit for genuinely and deeply conceding she did wrong in her email.

    I also think Dr. Shkop places too much emphasis on the support of victims/survivors. She recognizes responding to survivors as one of the great challenges facing the orthodox community. But she still treats it as an individual assistance issue. It is that but it is much more. It is a question of opening up a discourse about how we respond to survivors, whether we stop stigmatizing them, whether we are open to hearing about the whole sordid mess including cover-ups and rebuffs.

    Still, all-in-all, this outcome is encouraging as a small step forward, and a major improvement in the circumstances of one survivor.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Binyomin WeinsteinMarch 4, 2013 at 11:17 AM

    Sadly, I doubt Dr. Esther Shkop, or for that matter anyone with the almost unbridled power we allow the "principals" of our yeshivas and bais yakovs, will willingly change their attitudes.

    The only solution is for our communally funded institutions to be run by boards of directors comprised of communal members willing to conduct themselves as board members. E.g., Dr. Esther Shkop has at a minimum blundered badly and harmed a communal institution. She should be censured and mandated to undergo training so that she learns how to comport herself in the future. With everything that is being revealed about the problem of child abuse and its cover-up within our community we can't afford not to take charge of our educators and force change.

    Our children deserve no less than the best we can provide them and thankfully we are a financially stable community with the ability to properly manage our institutions. It is high time we did so.

    ReplyDelete
  7. It's a start... though I think that the staff of that school really needs to stop focusing on their definition of tzniut (which I personally really disagree with) and put their attention toward pikuach nefesh. It's all fine and dandy to talk about private counseling sessions. But education and awareness -- which Kaylie herself says that she never received as a child, which blows my mind -- are massively important if we're going to save victims and help survivors heal, which is what is really most important.

    When I wrote to Dr. Shkop and the other staff at HTC, I warned them that since they admit students as young as 16 (and I called Shkop anonymously, posing as someone who wanted to find out if this was so for a prospective student) that she and other employees of the school are mandated reporters of such abuse under Illinois state law. They should all be forced to take mandated reporter training and accept that when it comes to child safety, if they don't comply with the law and really do something to protect, educate, and affirm sexual abuse and assault victims, there are severe consequences. And religiously based (according to them) conceptualizations of "modesty" do not make anyone exempt from following the law. Not acting as a mandated reporter when required to isn't a civil court matter -- it's a criminal court matter. If you don't report, you're aiding someone who deserves to be labeled as a registered sex offender. Period.

    Training (or retraining) on this kind of matter by the state of Illinois and specialists in treating victims of sexual violence need to occur. And if the staff refuse to comply and start playing by the rules, they need to go. No exceptions.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The full text of a statement posted this morning on the website of the Hebrew Theological College:
    http://www.htc.edu/component/k2/item/281-call-to-action.html

    Call to Action

    Tragically and painfully, sexual abuse and misconduct is a plague in our world and our Orthodox community has not been spared. Throughout its history, Hebrew Theological College has always provided caring support and guidance for its students. We are proud of this tradition and are committed to continue to actively demonstrate the highest ideals of Torah and Chesed. Regrettably, in a recent communication with a student who enrolled in our school with a past history of being a victim of sexual abuse, we failed to exercise appropriate sensitivity. As a consequence, we regard this as a catalyst for immediate action, growth and institutional improvement.

    Our Board and Executive Leadership are now in the process of identifying a cross section of experts to present recommendations to us that will enable us to develop the resources and support systems needed so that we are positioned to the fullest extent possible to help our students through the healing process.

    ReplyDelete
  9. With all do respect to Mrs. Shkop, her apology should've been not more than:

    "Kaylie,*

    I apologize for my harsh words. They were inappropriate and hurtful. I want to help you heal. Let's meet to talk about how that can happen."

    Instead, her letter was all about her and what she faces. If I were Kaylie, I'd have told her to take a flying leap.

    What a lovely display of just how 2-faced our "leaders" are.

    Signed,
    Anon, because I still have to function in this community.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I am happy that kaylie is satisfied with the apology, and I hope that the training will teach the principal and teacher of this seminary that silence is not the right approach.

    The culture of silencing and shaming the victims has to be fought, little step by little step... I hope that the steps in the right direction will be taken now.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Chaim, the post from anonymous on March 5 at 3:26 is spam. The price of allowing anonymous posts.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Early this morning, the web site FailedMessiah.com reprinted an ad for a Haredi bookstore in Brooklyn. Most of the ad is in Yiddish. But the last line is in English and reads:

    Free delivery - Raping available by demand

    The bookstore probably meant to say "Wrapping available on request".

    I guess that is what happens when one's secular education stops at the grade 3 level.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Okay, honestly. I'm unsubbing from these comments. Tired of getting spammed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello, Lisa:
      We're terribly sorry for the inconvenience. We're trying to come up with a better solution for the spam. Please bear with us.

      Delete
  14. While this story first broke out as a negative development of how important institutions like this school could callously dismiss a sexual abuse survivor's claims, I'm glad the outcry has made them reverse their stance. There are many cases where sexual abuse is dismissed by our society and I'm glad that women like Kaylie have stood up to it. More people should be made aware on how to deal with sexual abuse victims.

    The Zalkin Law Firm, P.C.

    ReplyDelete

Feel free to post any comment or questions. Negative commentary that does not serve a useful purpose will be deleted.