Earlier this week my colleague Chana German blogged about the need to raise awareness about sexual abuse, and how the day school system is the place to do it. I fear that there are much more basic issues that are rarely discussed in schools that deserve attention. Let me tell you a story.
When I was teaching in a post-high school one-year program in Israel, I had a student who "marched to the beat of a different drummer." The program encouraged Hevruta study, but she never seemed to be able to find someone to learn with on a regular basis; she didn't seem to be unhappy, but she never seemed to be part of the group and didn't appear to have any close friends.
The set-up of Israel programs is such that unless there is a serious problem, teachers rarely have the opportunity to interact with parents. This is not unusual in a college-level program (how often did your parents have a conversation with your Math or English lit professor?), but in settings whose educational purpose goes well beyond straightforward academic pursuits, there are certainly drawbacks to this arrangement.
In any case, when this student's mother came to Israel for a visit, I made sure to meet with her and discuss her daughter's social situation with her. The mother listened to my description, and admitted that she was unsurprised. In most settings, she explained, her daughter found one or two friends who were also uncomfortable socially, and she managed well with a small circle of friends. While it was unfortunate that in this setting she had not found such companions, she could also do well on her own, so the mother was not concerned. As our conversation continued, the mother attributed her daughter's social difficulties to her daily school-bus commuting in elementary school. Only after an entire year - during which time her daughter became more and more unhappy and withdrawn - did it come out that a group of her peers ridiculed and taunted her on a daily basis. When asked why she had never reported their behavior to her teacher or her parents, the girl simply said "it would have been lashon ha-ra (speaking evil of others)."
I was reminded of this story while reading an article by Rabbi Mark Dratch that he recently referred to in a Lookjed submission, where he takes issue with a printed responsum that forbids believing someone who accuses a parent of abuse unless there are two reliable witnesses.
I have the sense that schools often work under the assumption that if kids aren't beating up on one-another during recess, then everything is fine. Perhaps we need to begin talking about abuse in school, but verbal assaults can have lasting effects on students - no less that physical ones.