As I sit here the afternoon of the last day of school, I envision the entire school together in the gym at 11:15 watching a video celebrating this year's accomplishments. This past week has been full of celebrations. The 6th graders had an end of the year Advisory “trip” where through team building activities we celebrated all that we learned in Advisory this year. Yesterday, after lunch, the 7th graders celebrated their efforts this year to “change the world” one act at a time. And, of course, our 8th graders had their grand celebration at graduation last week. We educators celebrated as well at our end of the year luncheon after school today. We shared success stories and inspirational accomplishments. (And, we too celebrated the arrival of summer vacation!)
At the end of that luncheon we took time to remember “al rosh simchateinu” “above our chiefest joy,” the three boys Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach who were kidnapped in Israel, by reciting Tehillim. As we busily pack up our children for camp, buy supplies and worry about new bathing suits and the right flip flops, all is put into perspective. And, as we get the report cards in the coming weeks, and perhaps see grades that we wish were better, all is put into perspective. The parents of these three boys wish they could feel harried by pre-camp preparations and annoyed by a bit of underachieving. They are in our tefillot.
When my second grader heard about the plight of these three boys she asked me what was happening. I did not want her to be scared about going to Israel so I responded, “These three boys went into a car with a stranger. Remember, we always talk about not going anywhere with someone you don't know or even someone you know without your parents' permission?” I turned the conversation into one about safety.
At this time of year, when our children are either going to sleepaway camp or to a day camp it is time to remind ourselves to sensitize our children to the importance of keeping themselves safe and telling a trusted adult when they don't feel safe. This issue is particularly important when it comes to camp when the parents are not around and they may be supervised by teenagers- who may not supervise appropriately. This abuse can range from verbal, physical or sexual abuse. The perpetrators can be adults or peers. Most children know well that they should not go off with strangers. However, most perpetrators are people kids know and trust.
Our last unit in sixth grade Advisory was "Preparing for Summer." We discussed with the students some real life uncomfortable situations they may confront in camp and how to get help. Here are some scenarios we discussed:
"Jake has been waiting an hour for his turn in the shower after the big hockey game. He finally gets his turn and as he's showering he hears laughing. Suddenly, the curtain to his shower opens and he see Tom, Louis and Steven standing there hysterically laughing."
"Swimming has just ended and all the girls are in the locker room getting dressed. Carla never likes getting dressed in the locker room- she likes more privacy. But, there's no choice in the camp she goes to. As she's trying to get dressed, she wraps her towel around her so she can cover herself. Right then, Janice runs over to her and pulls her towel away and Carla is left there standing naked."
"Jimmy's parents gave him a phone for the first time for camp. His friend Chuck keeps on texting him dirty jokes. Jimmy is uncomfortable and doesn't know what to do."
“The head counselor of your camp, a really great guy, asks you to go out to the woods with him to collect fire wood for the camp fire later. Everyone else is in the Cafeteria far away on the other side of camp.”
Some ideas we discussed were what is wrong with the above situations? It is clear that if you are uncomfortable that is it not okay. No one every has permission to make you feel uncomfortable- even as a joke or a prank. When should you go to an adult or a counselor? The moment you feel something is not right. Why do some campers not come forward? They are afraid of snitching and retaliation. We stress to students that a plan will be made to protect against retaliation, and sometimes we have to overcome that fear. What if the adult we go to does not make the situation better? Then find another adult. If the adult you go to minimizes the situation and says it's “no big deal” then find another adult. If it makes you feel uncomfortable, it is a big deal. We also stress the importance of involving your parents, even when you are away at sleepaway camp. What is our responsibility as bystanders to this incident? Clearly if something is bothering another camper, we need to help him/her.
In scenario two we stressed:
Is it okay and normal that Carla likes more privacy? Yes. Different people have different personal boundaries. We should respect that. Some people don't mind getting dressed in front of others and some do. No one should feel uncomfortable for that. And, we need do know our own personal boundaries. If we ever feel that someone is crossing our boundaries then we need to get them to stop (Ex. Some people don't like it when people pat them on the back to say, "Hi"- Some people don't mind. You need to make it clear that you don't like something when it involves your boundaries). Don't ever say to your self, "Hey, no one else seems to be bothered by this- so I shouldn't be either" If you are bothered, than it's no good. What should this girl do about the privacy in the changing area for the future? Do you think the head counselor might change the rules by allowing girls who want to change in the bathroom do that? How can he make that happen? (I have heard kids even tell me that they will avoid swimming just so they don't have to change in those locker rooms). Where was the counselor at the time? Why is there no adult supervision? (or at least supervision by older counselor) You might want to stress that part of feeling safe is knowing that someone is there to help and supervise. What if the counselor is joining in? It is important to report to the head counselor or get parents to speak to a supervisor. Counselors get tips- they want to be liked.
In scenario three we stressed how it is similar to the above examples, even though it is via phone. Often kids forget that it can be a crime even if it is not face to face. They all have learned about cellphone safety and the legal issues.
The last scenario leads to a more frank discussion regarding sexual abuse. Please stress with your children that it is essential, even if the perpetrator is someone he/she likes, that they must come forward to someone he/she trusts. Our goal is not to scare them, but to ensure that they know what to do. Most camps now train their counselors in child safety, but it is imperative that we prepare our children. The Association of Jewish Camp Operators has created a list of topics to review with children before sending them to camp:
- Teach your children that no one, not even a Rebbe, counselor or a relative has the right to touch them in a place ordinarily covered by a bathing suit.
- Let your children know that they should tell the Camp Director, Head Counselor or Division Head if they are not comfortable with how they are being treated or spoken to.
- Teach your children that it is ok to say to such a person, "No, Get away."
- Tell your children that they should not listen to anyone that tells them to keep secrets from parents or camp administration.
- Tell your children that they should not be afraid of threats from such a person. The adults will protect them and will not let anyone hurt them.
- Tell your children that they can tell you or another trusted adult anything and you will always be supportive.
- Be alert for changes in your child's behavior that could signal abuse, such as sudden secretiveness, sleeplessness, withdrawal from activities or increased anxiety.
- Above all, let your children know that they can always tell you anything without fear of blame. Communication is critical.
As I send away my children to sleepaway camp, the above conversation becomes even more critical, as we rely on them to stay safe and do the right thing when we are not with them. How can we ensure that our children do the right thing when we are miles away? When Yoseph was in the house of Potiphar, far from home and his family, he faced the difficult situation of the wife of Potiphar. The Gemara in Sotah 36b describes, “It was taught in the School of R. Ishmael: That day was their feast-day, and they had all gone to their idolatrous temple; but she had pretended to be ill because she thought, I shall not have an opportunity like to-day for Joseph to associate with me. And she caught him by his garment, saying etc. At that moment his father's image came and appeared to him through the window and said: 'Joseph, your brothers will have their names inscribed upon the stones of the ephod and yours amongst theirs; is it your wish to have your name expunged from amongst theirs and be called an associate of harlots?' Immediately his bow abode in strength.”
Clearly Yoseph's father was far away in Canaan- how could he have seen the image of his father Yaakov in the window? That image of Yaakov that he saw was the voice in his head. Over and over he had heard his father say, “Good boys don't act that way. In our family, our values are...” And, of course, like any teenager, (Yoseph was just 17 when he went to Egypt), he said to his dad, “I know, I know- why do you keep on telling me the same thing?!” And, yet, Yaakov continued sending those messages. That is why, when faced with challenge to his morality, he heard that voice in his head.
Each year when we have the “safety talk” with our children they say to us, “I know, I know- enough already!” And, yet when they are faced with challenge- whether scenarios like those above, or peer pressure to do the wrong thing, they will hear our voice in their head, and practically see our image before them reminding them of what they should do.
We pray that our children will always be safe when they are not with us and when we are unable to watch them. We hope they recall the safety rules and values we have “drilled” into them. It is a comfort to know that they are always being watched over by Shomer Yisrael, the Guardian of Israel. May that Shomer Yisrael bring Naftali, Gilad and Eyal home safely.