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Thursday, February 22, 2018

I’ll never forget that phone call.

There was a half-hour between the end of school on Thursdays and mishmar. Though we took dinner orders from the boys from a popular restaurant that delivered, there were always boys who wanted to get from a different restaurant (no matter which restaurant we picked!). They left campus by car and inevitably returned to mishmar late. Though it was against the school rules, we turned a blind eye. We were keeping them after school to learn Torah, and wanted the Torah to “taste sweet” (literally and figuratively).

“Two of your seniors have been arrested,” said the owner of the local kosher burger joint. Numerous police cars were outside his establishment. “Get over here quick!”

The parents of one of the boys had given their son a jet-black Camaro with blacked-out windows, along the bottom of which the young man added purple neon lights. The boys drove around the strip mall with the muzzle of a (paintball) gun sticking out of the passenger window. Someone saw this sight, was petrified, and dialed 911. This was no everyday occurrence in Boca Raton, so the cops responded quickly and in force.

In my mind, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. A month before, these same two students had “playfully” jumped upon a beloved rebbe on the school’s front lawn and broken his ankle. A month or two before that, after a shiur vs. shiur football game was over, they had tackled a freshman and broken his femur. I’ll never forget the two days I spent in the hospital with the worried parents. Baruch Hashem, the difficult surgery was successful and the young man grew about another foot by graduation three years later.

The first rule for heads of school is the same as for doctors: “Primum non nocere”—first, do no harm. Even if our students learn nothing, we must make sure our schools do not harm them—physically, religiously or emotionally. I felt I couldn’t keep our students safe with these two boys at school. What would be next?

Asking these boys to leave the school was a difficult decision. They were seniors, and I didn’t want to hurt their ability to advance in life. We thought about how painful this would be for their families, and how their suffering would be an unintended consequence. We arguably enjoyed the best relationship with this grade that we ever had with a class, and were not interested in jeopardizing it.

We decided to let them take their tests and finals offsite, gave them transcripts and diplomas, but did not let them march at graduation. I couldn’t even imagine what they could do to that evening! Baruch Hashem, I didn’t impact this class’ relationship with the school and its rebbeim, and I believe it didn’t impact the trajectory of the two boys’ lives.

In my 15 years as a high school principal, I was confronted by the question of asking students to leave a number of times. Few cases are black and white, and there are many shades of gray. Drinking or drugs on school property or at a school program (like a shabbaton) are one thing. A huge “free house” party to which the police are called and from which students are rushed to the hospital is another. Because every situation is different, it’s difficult to create hard and fast rules.

Hindsight is 20/20. I don’t know if I made the correct decision in any of the cases I dealt with. I also don’t know anything about the recent events that inspired this discussion in our community. What I do know is that our community is blessed with respected and experienced heads of school who try their best to make the best decisions they can. They are taking the physical, religious and emotional safety of all their students into account.

Halacha teaches us that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” doesn’t apply to dinei nefashot. However, one can characterize these cases as a safek pikuach nefesh for the rest of the student body, as well as for the student(s) in question.

I believe that it was in Hanoch Teller’s “A Matter of Principle” that I read of a principal who fasted the day that he had to decide about asking a student to leave, because the Gemara in Sanhedrin says that the Sanhedrin had to fast on a day that it judged a capital case. Principals understand that expelling a student from a yeshiva can mean signing his spiritual death warrant, and they do not make these decisions lightly.

By Rabbi Perry Tirschwell

 Rabbi Perry Tirschwell was the founding head of school of the Katz Yeshiva High School in Boca Raton, and presently is the executive director of the Torah Educators Network.