By Mr. Richard Altabe, Mrs. Channa Leah Siegal, Mr. Elkanah Adelman
Picture this: A car pulls up to a passing child, or a child passes a car, and an unknown occupant from within rolls down the window and addresses the child or asks a question. If the child runs away to seek familiar adult help, he or she is doing the right thing.
As parents we teach our children what to do whenever they are confronted with unusual situations that have the potential to turn ugly very quickly: Don’t answer back; just run and seek help. Even if the situation turns out to be that there was nothing to fear, the concept of “better safe than sorry” is the safest and most applicable. A child who acts accordingly should be praised for his or her actions and should serve as an example to other children of what is the right and safe thing to do.
There are also safety procedures that parents and educators must follow when children raise alarm to a possible situation involving a predator. Every situation must be treated with utmost seriousness; an adult reaction should never be to minimize that which occurred, but to evaluate it and face it fiercely yet prudently. Every situation can fall into one of three categories:
- An innocent encounter with no ill or criminal intentions. (A child running away is still a correct response even in this situation)
- An incident of verbal taunting or teasing that ends quickly with no physical contact with the child. (Although this certainly qualifies as a strange situation, no crime has been committed.)
- A dangerous and criminal encounter where the person wishes (or expresses an intention) to abduct or otherwise cause harm to the child.
While there is clarity on how best to advise children on the issue of “stranger danger,” adults must follow the lead of local law enforcement and work side by side with public safety officials to decide if the situation is such that the authorities and the community need to be alerted. Alerting the community to a non-dangerous situation can be dangerous in itself. It causes undue panic, and sometimes people take action with little or incomplete information.
If we raise the alarm so many times to situations that are truly not a danger, then when a vital notice needs to get out, people will be numb to the message and not perceive the imminent threat as quickly as they should.
So what should adults do? While suspicious or questionable interactions between children and adults need to be investigated, we must be mindful about irresponsible reports of incidents before the situation can be totally clarified. The use of social media to spread rumor and panic can be detrimental to the safety of our community.
Recently, community leaders, shul rabbanim, and school officials in the Five Towns and the Rockaways have established a special emergency communication system, whereby the police and other community agencies can report upon actual threats or potential threats to our community. Over 200 community leaders are able in this way to collect information in real time to disseminate to their specific groups or institutions. This system is a far more preferable and responsible method of getting information out to the community as opposed to the individual usage of social media, which only serves to create fear through unsubstantiated rumors that scare the public.
As individual parents we must and should speak to our children about strategies to deal with strangers:
- No child should ever approach a car when they don’t know the driver. This goes for both frum and non-frum drivers!
- Teach your children the “Tricky Adult Rule.” No adult should ever be asking a child questions or for help. That’s a “tricky adult.” Adults don’t need a child’s help, and if an adult on the street is asking them a question or asking them for help, the child should know to run to a trusted adult immediately.
- Families should have a “safe word.” It’s usually a very silly, unusual word you would not hear or use in regular conversation. If parents ever need to send an unfamiliar adult to their children, that adult would say the “safe word” and the children would immediately know that he or she is a safe, trusted adult even if they don’t know him or her.
The frum community needs to understand the cultural differences at play in many situations. As best as possible, we are raising our children in a “cultural bubble” of sorts to shield them from that which is far from good and wholesome. Because of this, our children often fear things that others outside of our tight cultural bubble would find inoffensive, even if a bit unusual. This is not to say that the bubble is bad, but we need to recognize that out of naiveté, our children might not fully understand the actions of others they might encounter.
As a community, our top goal is to protect our children and those we love. Teaching them how to be safe is key, but stopping panic and reacting to situations smartly as community leaders, parents, and educators is equally important. May Hashem give us the chachmah to discern how to handle each situation that comes to us, and may He keep our families safe during these challenging times.
Mr. Richard Altabe is a well-renowned educator and community leader. Mr. Altabe is the Lower Division principal at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach’s Woodmere campus. He also is a past president and a current board member of the Jewish Community Council of the Rockaway Peninsula.
Mrs. Channa Leah Siegel serves as a supervisor of the Rockaway Nassau Safety Patrol. In addition to that, Mrs. Siegel, the mother of four daughters, has many years of experience as a writer and educator of both homeschooled and traditionally schooled children. As an educator, mother, and public safety volunteer, she is very familiar with issues of public safety and how it relates to our children.
Mr. Elkanah Adelman is a founding coordinator of the Rockaway Nassau Safety Patrol. He is also a teacher in the New York City public-school system and at a local yeshiva. He currently is a first-grade special educator at the Bay School (PS/MS 105Q), and he teaches 10th- and 11th- grade English at Mesivta Shaarei Chaim. His experience as an educator of children in various schools in Far Rockaway’s diverse community, coupled with his knowledge in the area of public safety, serves as an asset to our community.