Seniors and parents voice concerns in meeting with AMHSI administrators

Alexander Muss High School in Israel (HSI) administrators spoke with around 70 senior parents and students on Thursday evening regarding the recent expulsion of CESJDS seniors from their capstone trip for two hours and twenty minutes.

CESJDS Head of School Rabbi Mitchel Malkus and High School Principal and Associate Head of School Dr. Marc Lindner made HSI aware of parent concerns, and together, JDS and HSI administrators agreed a meeting was necessary.

“The goal was to allow parents and students to give feedback with their experience with the program,” Lindner said in an interview.

Head of School of HSI Mordechai Cohen began the meeting by apologizing for and recognizing his mishandling of the incident and later said he would not use the same investigative procedures in the future.

“I unequivocally apologize for the terrible negative experience that I caused the students to have,” Mordechai said in an interview after the meeting.

Mordechai noted that Israeli culture generally fosters a tougher attitude toward rule-breaking, but took full responsibility for his actions and did not attempt to justify them.

There was a general consensus among parents in the room that the email Mordechai originally sent Malkus did not describe the incident as students on the trip had described it to their parents. During the meeting, Mordechai acknowledged this discrepancy and agreed with the students’ accounts.

The majority of the meeting consisted of parents and seniors, some of whom were expelled from the trip, voicing their opinions and concerns to Mordechai and Co-Executive Director of HSI Orit Rome. Throughout the meeting, parents and students’ comments were hostile towards  Mordechai and Rome, and some of these comments called for Mordechai and Dean of Students of HSI Polly Hyams to resign.

“It is very important to listen and to hear the feedback,” Mordechai said. “There is nothing more important for an organization than to hear from partnership schools and from the parents about how they feel and to be able to assemble that knowledge and to make the program better, and to improve the program and to revise the program based on the feedback.”

After Mordechai’s initial speech, parents began by protesting the treatment of students who were expelled from the trip. The investigation has been described by an expelled student as an interrogation that lasted for hours without food or drink.

Although the investigated students were told that their punishment would be lessened if they complied with the investigation, parents agreed that the students did not benefit from telling the truth.

Specifically, the student who took the picture of a peer drinking alcohol, the event that sparked the investigation, was pressured into revealing his best friend’s violations to HSI. This resulted in both of them being expelled and their friendship nearly being ruined.

These type of mistakes should not have been made: interrogating kids for many hours, coercing them to rat on their friends, telling them that being truthful would help them, but of course, that was not the case,” an anonymous parent of an expelled student* said in an interview. “People working with young adults should be prepared and knowledgeable about how to address these type of concerns.”

Another mother of an expelled student said that the interrogation has severely harmed her son’s mental health. She said that he has had to go to therapy to calm his nightmares and help him forget the incident. HSI’s administration plans to address issues like these for future expulsions and similar cases.

“The fact that we didn’t have anyone there for the students to feel they could speak with, confide with or consult with was really what was missing,” Rome said in an interview following the meeting. “[If the incident occurred again] I would plan ahead to have some sort of professional in the consulting/therapeutic field who would be there so the kids would have someone to talk with, to explain what they were feeling and to ensure that their needs would be met. This person could be their advocate.”

Despite not being the person in charge of the investigation and expulsion, Rome added that if the situation occurs again, she will include parents in the conversation and make sure they were aware of what is transpiring.

Some parents also thought that it was unfair that students were punished for not explicitly being caught possessing alcohol or marijuana, especially since most of them were not pictured in the Snapchat photo and the investigation took place four days later. Other parents advised HSI to make its rules more lenient by eliminating its “one-strike” policy.

Remaining students and their parents reported that Mordechai was rarely seen after the incident even though he told parents that he would try to rebuild their then-fractured relationship in an email. Mordechai said it was important to come to JDS to share his mistakes and listen to parent concerns, with the ultimate goal of repairing the relationship between JDS and HSI. Rome said that around 80 of the 383 students enrolled in HSI this year were JDS seniors.  

For around the first hour of the conversation, attendees focused on how Mordechai handled the situation. For the remainder of the meeting, concerns drifted toward problems with the trip overall, mainly concentrating on negligent care for student health and wellbeing.

“The incident this year was the catalyst for all of this, but there have been issues for the last several years that have not yet been corrected,” parent Stephanie Sporkin said.

Senior Ilan Cohen got a stomach virus during the volunteer period of the trip at kibbutz Givat Oz. While Ilan was sick, his mother reached out to Hyams who alerted Ilan’s parents that he was receiving care, but Ilan said he did not receive proper medical treatment for six days. According to Ilan, Hyams told him to “get over it.”

Some parents said that the capstone trip has a history of treating students poorly, and many shared past experiences of their children dealing with illness. One said that on a prior trip, their child vomited on the floor multiple times and was not checked on by HSI staff due to a holiday. Furthermore, his roommates had to clean up the vomit with paper towels because there was no proper cleaning equipment in their housing.

Another parent said that her child who had a 104-degree fever had to walk to a medical clinic with a friend and was not escorted by an HSI staffer until his return trip.

Before the meeting, HSI decided to create a new position for a parent volunteer medical professional to assist in student care and communication with parents about treatment. Additionally, HSI will add a liaison between HSI and the JDS community. Rome said the flight from Tel Aviv to Prague will no longer occur early in the morning, and long bus rides will be kept to a minimum because sleep deprivation and long transportation hours worsen student health.

During the meeting, Rome said that she and her staff would dedicate a significant amount of time to ensuring that the Class of 2020’s trip to Israel is suitable. If Rome does not think that the trip will be suitable by February 2020, she will not run the program.

Despite this, many parents expressed distrust that Mordechai and Rome will follow through, saying that HSI has not addressed their concerns in the past. Some went as far as to say that they would not send their younger children on the trip with HSI in the future.

Rome said in an interview after the meeting that she and her staff are starting to plan the trip earlier than usual, which will better allow for improvements to the program.

Lindner said that the JDS administration has not yet had time to debrief about the meeting. Lindner was the only JDS administrator present which also upset some parents, as Lindner himself had a daughter on the trip.

“I am not going to say yet what specific changes will occur just because I have not had the chance to delve into it, but the conversations about potential changes began before Thursday night, so I do see changes coming,” Lindner said in an interview.

*Name has been kept private to protect parent’s privacy.