Wednesday, December 10, 2008

About Your/Our Kids

The following is a letter sent by Dr. Kalman Stein, principal of The Frisch School in northern New Jersey, to the parent body. I am posting it here with his permission, but I would like to emphasize that the problem he describes is not limited to The Frisch School; I know that other New York area schools have shared the letter with their parents, as well.

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Dear Parent:

There's an old Yiddish expression which I often heard from my mother: "Oder mir darft nicht, oder es helft nicht," which loosely translated, in the context I'm about to use it, means that there are certain things that should be so self-evident that if one needs to talk about them it probably won't do any good.

As most Frisch parents know, I believe that it is the school's responsibility to be aware of and to react to our students' out-of-school activities and that I have arrogated for myself the role of the gadfly who gently (or not so gently) tries to keep parents aware of what's going on out there in their children's world and to speak/write about parental responsibility. I must admit, however, that lately I've been wondering whether Mom was right and whether I, therefore, should just stop tilting at windmills. I wonder whether there is any purpose to once again annoy parents with advice which should have come with the instruction manual they received on the way home from the hospital and especially whether it makes sense to continue preaching to parents who've seen/heard and apparently ignored my sermons in the past.

However, my colleagues and some of the school's key lay leaders have encouraged me to get back on my soapbox. So here goes. A couple of real and recent vignettes:

A tenth grader is home on a Saturday night with her friend. Some other kids, including some slightly older boys, somehow learn that they're home alone and decide to join them. They bring some alcohol with them. There is some drinking, some loosened inhibitions, some impaired judgment, some fooling around. Nothing awful. Nothing to get hysterical about. Unless, of course, one thinks that a bunch of unsupervised teenage boys and girls and some drinking is something that adults in our community ought to be upset about. Simple question: Where did the parents of these youngsters, fifteen and sixteen-year-olds, think their sons/daughters were that recent Saturday night? Did they know that they were going to someone's house and, if so, did they bother to find out whether there would be any adult supervision?

A student's parents make her a party, a Sweet Sixteen, I think, in a club in Manhattan. There are adults at the party and, as far as we can determine, there isn't any smoking or drinking going on inside. But, of course, there's outside the club. There's inside the cars that some of the kids were allowed to drive to Manhattan and to drive their friends to the party. And in some of the cars there's drinking. There's driving with open alcohol containers in the car which fortunately—or probably unfortunately—was not noticed by a policeman. There are kids being driven around Manhattan and ultimately back home by other kids who've been drinking. But it's not a problem because, after all, "It's been x time since he last had a drink". Have none of the parents whose children drove or were driven by other kids seen the 11:00 News, heard a TV commercial, read the front page of The Record just about any Saturday or Sunday morning? Are we all so certain of our children's maturity and resistance to pe er pressure that we're quite confident that teenagers with wheels and freedom in the Big City on a weekend evening is a really terrific idea?

A kid who doesn't attend a yeshiva high school makes a party. Some of his Frisch (and other yeshiva) friends come and invite their Frisch (and other yeshiva) friends. I'm probably exaggerating but I've been given the impression that if one got close enough to the house one could experience that very identifiable smell which I remember so well from certain parts of the Columbia campus in the late sixties. Some of our kids, I'm happy to say, took one look (or sniff) and decided to leave. Some stayed. I don't know who, if any, indulged (whether or not they inhaled). Yes, they were seniors. But does that mean that their parents didn't need to know where they were going? Did even one parent make a phone call? Have parents come to the conclusion that substance abuse is a rite of passage—some kids seem to have concluded that it's a right of passage—or that it's a good idea for high school kids who don't smoke or drink to face the challenge of how to handle themselves when confronted with a situation such as this one?

What's the school going to do? We are going to try very hard to identify the students involved in incidents such as these. Not because we want to punish them. Because we want to help them by working with them and their parents. And because we want the message to get out to the kids - maybe it's been too quiet on this front for a year or more - that The Frisch School is going to deal very strenuously with substance abuse, a message which will also be delivered at grade meeting in coming days.

What is a parent do? I can't say it any more clearly. After tilting at windmills for a bunch of years one finds that all his lances are shattered.

Dr. Kalman Stein
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