In response to Rabbi Pruzansky’s recent article (“Changing My Mind on School Expulsions,” January 11, 2018) about disciplinary approaches to substance use, I am writing to share my perspective as a head of school.
There is no question that expulsions are an absolute last resort, and that in virtually any situation in which a student is struggling with an issue that does not harm other people, s/he should be supported with compassion and allowed to stay in school. The reason the Kamtza/Bar Kamtza story is the paradigm of sinat chinam in divrei Chazal is that there is nothing more rejecting and hurtful than telling a person that his or her presence isn’t welcome, and the potential negative effects of that kind of rejection are far greater than of any other kind of discipline. When it comes to substance abuse, it is almost always the right choice to work with the student, parents and therapist rather than reject the child, and there is almost nothing in olam hazeh that deserves a zero-tolerance policy.
However, Rabbi Pruzansky significantly overstates the frequency with which expulsions are used. In fact, all Modern Orthodox schools in our community are extremely reluctant to expel students and almost never do; Rabbi Pruzansky’s reference to “willy-nilly expulsions” simply does not reflect the reality in any of our schools. All of our schools believe that compassion should be the core value of every student’s experience, and we work daily to ensure that our schools are places of support, understanding and belief in people’s potential to grow.
In the exceptionally rare cases in which schools do expel students, it is generally because the student is harming another student in some way. The situations in which schools have least tolerance are those in which a student’s behavior is creating an unsafe or unhealthy environment for other students—who are also deserving of compassion. Even in such cases, decisions are made only after consultation, reflection and considering multiple approaches, and always with a heavy heart.
I also believe that parents play the primary role in a child’s development and that, notwithstanding the important role of school life, nothing compares to a supportive home life in areas relating to children’s safety and mental health. However, this does not imply that schools should be uninvolved in addressing challenges of teen substance use and the broad range of students’ social and emotional needs. Both schools and families will be better able to foster students’ growth and protect their safety by partnering in learning about and implementing approaches to stemming problems of substance use and abuse. Moreover, the ideal of partnership between schools and families is the best way to serve students’ needs in all areas. The reality is that schools and families are united in wanting what is best for students and working wholeheartedly to support the young people of our community, and the more our community works toward and embraces a model of partnership and collaboration, the better our children and teenagers will be served.
Mrs. Rivka Kahan
Principal, Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls