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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On paper, Hillel has a much more stringent hiring policy. Ellen Goldstein, a Hillel spokeswoman, said that Hillel conducts criminal background checks on all employees — except those at several smaller private universities, where Hillel relies on the universities to conduct background checks themselves. Goldstein said that universities are all capable of conducting background checks, “and I believe that today, they all are.”

Drew University, which employed Roth as an adjunct lecturer of Hebrew from 1999 until 2006, and where Roth was also the university chaplain and Hillel director, did not respond to repeated requests for clarification about whether it conducts background checks on employees today.

Drew would not comment on Roth’s employment except to confirm the dates he worked at the university.

Daniel Swinton, senior executive vice president of The NCHERM Group, a law and consulting firm that advises schools and colleges on risk management, said that although background checks are best practice in higher education, they are often overlooked at smaller, private universities that do not want to commit the manpower or money to do the work.

Even if background checks reveal a past history of abuse, experts differ on how to use that information in the hiring process. Some say the recidivism rate for sex offences is so high — 90% or more — that it is not worth the risk. Others say such recidivism rates are wildly exaggerated and that in a controlled environment, someone with a record of sex offenses could work with young people.

Such experts point to studies showing that recidivism among sex offenders is reasonably low. One such recent study, part-funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that recidivism for sex offenders 10 years after conviction was just 10%.

Dr. Howard Zonana, who chaired the American Psychiatric Association’s Task Force on Sexually Dangerous Offenders, said a child sex offender may not pose a risk to students over the age of 18 if the offender is attracted to only prepubescent boys, and if no direct force or violence was involved in previous offenses.

Zonana, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University, pointed out that students age 18 and older are “capable of being consenting adults.” Although, he added, “most schools have prohibitions against faculty getting sexually involved with students” anyway.

Y.U. did not respond to a question about its policy on sexual relations between faculty and students.

Dr. Fred Berlin, director of the Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said that recidivism rates among sex offenders are as political as they are scientific, and that people often “select the number most compatible with the point they are wanting to make.”

Berlin said that if an adult with a conviction for child sex offenses is to be employed, it must be done “thoughtfully and in a way that is not going to endanger others.”

He said that he would not put such an offender into an unsupervised setting with children. But as long as college students are properly educated about reporting when “lines have been crossed” and know they should not be sexually involved with their teachers, employing an offender at university level is not “taking an unreasonable risk.”

In recent years, there has been a movement toward helping convicted sex offenders fight workplace discrimination. But Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist, said that recidivism studies that are often used to buttress such arguments are unreliable.

Dietz said that because only a small fraction of sex crimes are ever detected, it follows that only a small proportion of recidivist crimes would be detected. “All studies are consistent with the hypothesis that recidivism is 90% to 100%, but offenders vary with how often they get caught and what proportion of their offenses get detected,” Dietz said.

Dietz, who also runs a company that advises organizations on how to prevent workplace violence, said that employers must build in safeguards “by not allowing the offender to be within the vicinity of his target group.”

In the case of Yeshiva College, Roth was employed on the same Washington Heights campus as Y.U.’s boys high school and dormitory, which is one block away from the Furst Hall building in which he was teaching.

Dietz says that employers have to be extremely careful. “People drop the ball again and again out of some misplaced hope that people will learn their lesson or that if this time we put him around adults or the elderly, we won’t have a problem,” he said. “But then some family brings their children along to visit their elderly grandfather, and a sex offender offers to take their kid for ice cream.

“We see this again and again in all institutions that function under this premise of hope and redemption, and I think religious institutions of many persuasions are particularly susceptible.”

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter, @pdberger


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