April 19, 2019

Washington Hebrew Preschool Sued for Enabling “Systematic” Sexual Abuse

Washington Hebrew Congregation’s preschool is facing allegations that the school deliberately ignored clear warning signs and allowed a teacher to continue sexually abusing at least seven toddlers for more than a year.

Parents filed a lawsuit Monday, laying out their allegations in a 239-page claim in D.C. Superior Court.

According to the lawsuit, one of Washington Hebrew preschool’s teachers took 3- and 4-year-old children to remote areas on campus to sexually abuse them. The teacher at the center of the allegations is not a defendant in the lawsuit, and there are no criminal charges pending against him yet.

According to an attorney for the parents, the families who filed the complaint have decided to remain anonymous to protect the privacy of their children.  

Instead, the lawsuit focuses on the temple itself and its early-childhood education director, Deborah “DJ” Scheider Jensen. The parents allege that Jensen blatantly disregarded signs that abuse was occurring on campus.

“[The children] were subject to systemic and regular sexual abuse on school property, during the school day, by a member of the teaching staff,” the lawsuit states.

A Washington Hebrew spokeswoman indicated that the Congregation is cooperating with the criminal investigation and denying some of the negligence allegations.

“In August 2018, Washington Hebrew Congregation immediately reported the allegations to DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and Child Protective Services as soon as we learned of them,” spokeswoman Amy Rotenberg wrote in an email. “Although there has not been any arrest, these allegations are very troubling; as a faith community, Washington Hebrew has supported and will continue to support its entire community as individuals grapple with how these allegations affect them and their families.”

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Washington Hebrew Congregation Allegations

Washington Hebrew Congregation is a prestigious Reform synagogue in the DC’s Tenleytown neighborhood. Its preschool opened 35 years ago. It has a campus in Washington DC and another in Maryland. Tuition is approximately $16,000 for full-time students. The school is currently on spring break.

The lawsuit indicates that the preschool permitted the teacher to be alone with students despite DC regulations that require a minimum of two adults to be present in licensed child development centers with toddlers. Furthermore, the school failed to properly train staff how to prevent child sexual abuse and identify the signs.

According to Rotenberg, the preschool passed city inspections and denies city regulation violations. The teacher in the lawsuit began teaching at Washington Hebrew in March 2016 but no longer works at the preschool.

Within his first month of working at the preschool, teachers and parents had reported incidents of inappropriate behavior to Jensen. This behavior included returning late with students when he was alone with them and being unresponsive to coworkers when they were looking for him while he was alone with students.

The lawsuit indicates that when one adult reported the behavior to Jensen, she responded by saying the person reporting the problem had a “sick mind,” indicating the teacher would never abuse children. Jensen also failed to investigate any of these incidents further; did not restrict the teacher’s access to children; and did not report issues to city officials.

“We are prepared to prove in this litigation that multiple adults — teachers and parents — went to the director of the school, Ms. Jensen, and either warned her specifically about behaviors they saw that were troubling or raised the concern about him taking children into rooms alone,” said an attorney for the eight families who filed the lawsuit.

Preschool Sexual Abuse Investigation

DC police first launched a sexual abuse investigation into the allegations in August 2018. According to a spokesman for the department, the preschool investigation is still ongoing, but no arrests have been made. A police report indicates that someone notified authorities about the suspected abuse through a DC Child and Family Services Agency hotline.

When the sexual abuse investigation came to public light in August, the school indicated it had placed a staff member on administrative leave.

“We have taken this matter seriously and have kept the community regularly apprised of what we know,” Rotenberg wrote.

According to the police report, the sexual abuse occurred between September 2017 and August 2018. However, the lawsuit indicates the teacher’s lecherous behavior began before this time.

Dolce specializes in sex-crime cases and said toddler victim investigations can be more time consumer than other cases due to communication barriers.

The lawsuit suggests that the young students exhibited abnormal behavior that staff with proper training would have identified as signs of abuse. The families are not specifying a damages dollar amount but are claiming that the preschool’s gross negligence is responsible for a potential lifetime of emotional distress, medical costs and therapy to the afflicted children. The lawsuit further indicates that the abuse could limit the student’s future earning potential.

While the lawsuit does not provide specific details on the nature of the sexual assaults, the families’ attorney said they were serious sex crimes.

“All of these children have received mental health care already,” the lawyer said. “To varying degrees, these children are suffering horribly, exhibiting substantial dysfunction… The sets of problems do not just go away by removing the child from the environment or removing the predator.”

In August 2018, the temple’s head of schools, president and rabbi sent an informative letter to preschool families regarding the investigation.

“These allegations and the necessary investigations are painful for everyone, but as a sacred community and congregation we seek to provide support to all as we face these challenges,” the letter stated. “We seek both justice and compassion as our tradition demands.”

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