Rules on Screening for Sex Offenders Vary Widely at Jewish Schools

Akiva Roth Was Hired as a Hebrew Teacher After Being Convicted of Lewdness

Voice of Caution: Dr. Fred Berlin of Johns Hopkins views recidivism rates skeptically.
courtesy of fred berlin
Voice of Caution: Dr. Fred Berlin of Johns Hopkins views recidivism rates skeptically.

By Paul Berger

Published October 18, 2013, issue of October 25, 2013.
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Is it safe to hire a man convicted of abusing children to teach college-age students? Is it wise?

Akiva Roth’s employment history since his 1997 conviction illustrates the patchwork of policies and practices at institutes of higher education in the Jewish community and beyond.

There are legal and scientific disparities, as well. Consultants who advise schools and colleges on risk management caution against hiring anyone with a conviction for a child sex offense. But psychiatrists, who are more focused on diagnosis and treatment of offenders than on damage limitation for institutions, offer divergent views on the risks of hiring such an offender to teach students of college age and older.

Roth’s story came to light in an October 8 report in the Forward that Roth, a recently hired Hebrew teacher at Yeshiva College, was sentenced to 10 years of probation in 1997 after pleading guilty to lewdness against four boys in his work as a private bar mitzvah tutor in New Jersey. During the bar mitzvah classes, Roth exposed and touched himself and encouraged the boys to do the same, according to court records.

Y.U., which is currently fighting a $380 million sex abuse lawsuit related to charges that it mishandled abuse allegations at its Manhattan boys high school decades ago, announced in an October 11 statement that “after an extensive review of this matter, Mr. Roth is no longer employed by the University.

“To our knowledge, he has not engaged in any inappropriate conduct during his time at Y.U.”

Y.U. will not respond to questions about whether it knew of Roth’s convictions when it employed him. But a spokesman did say in a statement that the university had “erred” in hiring him and that he had been hired “before the screening process had been completed.”

Y.U.’s action called into question the university’s hiring policies and procedures at a time when it is trying to repair the damage from abuse allegations first reported by the Forward in December 2012. An investigation commissioned by Y.U. in the wake of the scandal found that “sexual and physical abuse took place” at a number of Y.U. institutions during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s and was not dealt with appropriately by university staff.

But Roth’s hiring also called into question policies at two other Jewish institutions, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hillel, that deal primarily with students of college age with whom Roth was previously affiliated.

JTS, which employed Roth as a Hebrew instructor in a summer program for post-college students from 2000 until 2003 — while Roth was still on probation — said that it did not conduct a background check when it hired him.

Furthermore, JTS said that to this day, it does not conduct a criminal background check on employees unless they are involved in a small program that it runs for high school students.

Such a policy would be unthinkable at Brandeis University, where, according to Massachusetts law, all employers that have residence halls, and dormitories must conduct a background check of employees, said Ellen de Graffenreid, senior vice president of communications at Brandeis.

A JTS spokeswoman, Elise Dowell, said: “JTS is committed to creating a safe environment for our students, faculty, and staff. While we believe our processes to be consistent with best practices among our peer institutions, we regularly evaluate to identify areas of improvement and will continue to do so, including in this area.”


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