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Report of Mt Scopus teacher misconduct highlights the need for swift disclosure

Deborah Stone
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Published: 14 January 2022

Last updated: 4 March 2024

DEBORAH STONE: A major factor in enabling misconduct is the problematic impulse to conceal its existence. Concern for reputation must not trump transparency

WHILE CHOOSING A school for her daughter, about five years ago, a friend of mine asked the principal of a large Jewish school to outline the school’s bullying policy.

“You don’t need to worry about that,” replied the principal. “We don’t have bullying here.”

The school was promptly and wisely crossed off the parent’s list. Only the most naïve parent would believe such a claim. The principal was either woefully out of touch with the realities of school life or deliberately presenting an impossibly rosy picture to a prospective paying customer. Neither is an indication of a healthy institution.

Unfortunately, the tendency to present our communal institutions as immune from the usual social ills is strong within the Jewish community.

It came under the spotlight last month when The Age reported a case of teacher misconduct. Such cases are always upsetting, but there was an additional issue of concern on this occasion.

The Age reported that Mount Scopus principal Rabbi James Kennard had announced the departure of the teacher with a disingenuous email stating he had “resigned, due to personal reasons” and thanking him for his “great contribution to the college over 23 years”.

Only after the inevitable grapevine spread the information that an independent investigation had substantiated a current allegation and had prompted past students to come forward with similar allegations, did Rabbi Kennard notify the school community about the concerns.

According to the Age, “at least 10 women have accused the former senior teacher of misconduct towards them, when they were students”.

Rabbi Kennard said the case had been reported immediately to the Victorian Commission for Children and Young People.

Cases of bullying, abuse and impropriety can occur anywhere, but certain structures make them more likely. A major factor in enabling misconduct is the understandable but problematic impulse to conceal its existence.

The Jewish community is justifiably proud of its many fine organisations, and perhaps most of all its school system, which regularly generates not only some of the top academic results in the country but also produces graduates with strong values, deep cultural attachment and an intense sense of community.

Pride in our institutions can blind us to their weak spots. Even the best barrels have bad apples: the question is what we do when we find them.

But pride in our institutions can blind us to their weak spots. Even the best barrels have bad apples: the question is what we do when we find them.

Jewish day schools are highly competitive, client-focused organisations. On the one hand, that competition can make them prepared to go the extra distance to meet the individual needs of students and to respond to parental concerns.

On the other hand, selling education through customer focus is not always in the best interests of students. Parent-pleasing doesn’t always give children the distance they need to develop. Attention to how a school is perceived by current and potential customers is a barrier to acknowledging and addressing problems.

A superficial and short-term focus on reputation is a foolish, damaging and dangerous strategy.  It is foolish because it doesn’t work. In a community where information spread is efficient and impossible to control, it was always inevitable that the reason a Scopus teacher had left would become widely known.

It is damaging because everything a school does has an educative outcome, whether intentionally or otherwise. The response to a misconduct case must demonstrate a school’s commitment to rooting out offenders. Anything less will educate students - and teachers - in the opposite.

It is dangerous because we know abuse and bullying thrive, paradoxically, in situations where institutions fail to acknowledge their existence.

Schools, and religious schools, in particular, are vulnerable places because they are places where adults have power over children and therefore the opportunity to misuse it.

Throw reputational concerns into the mix, and the dangers increase. As the Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse noted, “an institution that prioritises its reputation over the care and safety of children creates barriers for victims to disclose harm and for bystanders to report concerns.”

The Jewish community has not suffered from the widespread cases of misconduct, physical or sexual abuse seen in some other religious frameworks, notably the Catholic system. We are a less hierarchical religion, we have a healthier attitude to – at least heterosexual – sex, and we have a culture that teaches our children to ask questions and speak up.

But we are not immune. In recent years allegations of misconduct of various kinds have been made against individuals in several Jewish schools or communal organisations.

The response to a misconduct case must demonstrate a school’s commitment to rooting out offenders. Anything less will educate students - and teachers - in the opposite.

The most extreme cases – those which have reached the criminal courts – have occurred in ultra-Orthodox sections of Melbourne’s Jewish community, which have stronger power structures and more of a culture of submission and shame.

Shame is always a problematic emotion, but it is particularly unhelpful as an organisational response to misconduct because it aggravates the pressure towards secrecy.

In the Jewish community, the pressure to guard institutional reputation is aggravated by fear of the non-Jewish response to anything that makes Jews imperfect citizens. Keeping under the radar has become a Jewish habit in a hostile world.

But misconduct in relation to children is not a situation where no news is good news. Whether it is schoolyard bullying, teacher impropriety or sustained exploitation, abuse happens. The appropriate response is relief a case has come to light, frank disclosure, and renewed efforts to minimise future cases.

Illustration: Avi Katz

About the author

Deborah Stone

Deborah Stone is Editor-in-Chief of TJI. She has more than 30 years experience as a journalist and editor, including as a reporter and feature writer on The Age and The Sunday Age, as Editor of the Australian Jewish News and as Editor of ArtsHub.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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