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.”
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.”