The use of alcohol and other drugs in the Jewish community is a cause of much concern among educators and parents. Substance abuse endangers the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual health of our children and erodes our basic Torah values.”
So begins a letter to parents created by the Safe Schools Yeshiva Network, “a unified communal response to confront the potential dangers and impact of alcohol and other drug use by our children,” said Frank Buchweitz, the Orthodox Union’s national director of community services and special projects.
As part of the Safe Schools project, spearheaded by Buchweitz, schools commit to basic guidelines, though they need not adopt all elements of the program, Some schools conduct random drug testing, for example, while others do not. Common to all the programs, however, is a commitment to educate students about drug abuse and to provide referrals for those who need help. In addition, parents are informed about the school’s participation in the program and given guidelines on preventing abuse at home. Noncompliance by students and parents may lead to a student’s suspension from school.
Buchweitz said that the 14 schools participating in the program – including, from this area, Teaneck’s Torah Academy and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and The Frisch School in Paramus – are “determined to be on the cutting edge of prevention.” The impetus for the program, he said, arose from a professional development workshop for yeshiva principals. “They were sharing what’s going on in the world,” he said.
While OU already had an educational model in place – its Positive Jewish Parenting program was created in 2000 to offer practical workshops on issues of current concern – Buchweitz felt that more was needed.
Subsequent meetings with the FEGS Health and Human Services System, the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York, and the Yeshiva Counseling Network – together with input from principals and mental health professionals serving yeshivas – resulted in a larger initiative, “Same Homes, Safe Shuls, Safe Schools.”
“We started discussing this three or four years ago, and two years ago we went to the schools” with the idea, said Buchweitz. “We aren’t looking to take power away from the principals,” he added, pointing out that the guidelines were written, and rewritten, with input from school leaders.
“It’s in the world – a national concern,” said Buchweitz, explaining that the group’s anti-substance abuse initiative “focuses on education, prevention, and intervention for high school youngsters. The teenage years are a time of growth and a search for identity,” he said. “We have to make sure our kids are safe.”
In addition to spelling out school policy, the directives include guidelines for responsible action by parents, including “supervision of parties in homes, calling host parents to ensure that supervision takes place, not permitting alcoholic beverages (including beer) or illegal substances to be brought in or served in the home, notifying parents if a teen arrives inebriated, forbidding entry, and calling parents to pick up the teen immediately.”
“Schools have different approaches to reaching the same goal within the context of guidelines,” said Buchweitz. However, he noted, to be accepted in the network, a school’s program must honor the spirit of the guidelines.
“We can’t neglect our responsibility,” said Buchweitz. “By signing on, the schools are saying to kids, ‘We’re very concerned and want you to be safe.'” He noted that the OU is also arranging professional development sessions for school mental health professionals.
While the program is targeted to modern Orthodox schools in the New York area, said Buchweitz, he would like to see other schools sign on, “from haredi schools to Conservative day schools.”
According to a statement from the OU, while the policy was initially launched in the New York Metropolitan area, it is “replicable elsewhere…. Intensive research has resulted in a policy that can appeal to all sectors of the Jewish community.”
Dr. Arthur Poleyoff, principal for general studies at TABC, said he was approached by the OU two years ago to be part of the initiative and quickly agreed that it would be valuable.
“We were the first school in New Jersey to enroll,” he said. He pointed out that as part of the effort, the school sends a letter to parents.
“Parents must sign a statement that they know of the school’s participation in the network and [know] that the school will share information with other schools. If parents don’t sign, students may not attend,” said Poleyoff.
“We also urge parents not to allow students to attend or to host parties including alcohol or drugs,” he said, adding that he believes alcohol abuse is the more prevalent problem. “We tell them, ‘Be parents. Talk to the children,'” he said.
“We can’t legally enforce what happens at home,” he noted, “but we can on campus.”
The principal said the school’s anti-drug policy includes both “inside” and “outside” elements. “Inside the school we do random drug testing as well as educational programs,” he said. “Outside, we communicate with other schools about students in violation.” He explained that if a student has an issue with substance abuse and decides to leave and go to another school, Torah Academy is committed to “accurate honest communication between schools.”
Noting that students “have no choice but to participate,” he said that the feedback he has gotten from students about the program has generally been positive. He added that the school feels comfortable administering the random drug tests, “following a Supreme Court decision that it is not a violation of privacy. Protecting the good of the public outweighs” other concerns here, he said.
TABC also offers educational programs several times a year, some in formal class settings and some less formal, such as presentations by the Teaneck Police Department. “They come in around Purim time,” said Poleyoff, when alcohol consumption is more of a concern.
Poleyoff said he believes it was important for the school to sign on to the “Safe Schools” initiative. “It proves the school’s commitment to be a safe haven for children and shows community concern,” he said.
Lisa Wiener, health coordinator at Frisch, said this is the first year the school is participating in the OU initiative.
“We’ve always had our own substance abuse policy, but we felt it was important to join a group effort,” she said, adding that the school’s focus is to “help students get help” when it is needed. She pointed out that if a student is thought – based on input from teachers, other students, or a guidance counselor – to have a substance abuse problem, he or she will be referred to a licensed substance abuse counselor.
Weiner said every grade in the school has a health program, focusing on a different aspect of health. She noted that the health seminars include segments on alcohol and drug abuse. In addition, the school brings in speakers from the Paramus Police Department and from JACS: Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others.
Frisch does not conduct random drug testing, said Wiener, pointing out that since this is the school’s first year in the program, there has not been any feedback.