It was early Friday afternoon, and instead of preparing for the start of Shabbat, students at Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy had something more pressing to attend to.
All of them, from kindergarten through eighth grade, filled the balconies of SAR’s open learning space to talk about a former assistant principal who has since been charged with a variety of crimes, including possession of child pornography and the sexual exploitation of a young boy.
“This was the hardest week,” Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, SAR Academy’s principal, told The Riverdale Press following that gathering. “This was a very, very hard week for the kids. Most importantly for victims. Every single night we had meetings with parents, with the FBI, the next night with a psychologist who was bringing guidance. Every single day and every night.”
That hard week was brought about by the arrest of Jonathan Skolnick, who prosecutors say was talking to a 14-year-old boy on social media, using fake women’s names and spoofed phone numbers and email addresses beginning last March, and continuing right up until he was arrested. When the boy stopped responding to Skolnick’s messages, investigators say he threatened to leak nude photos the boy had sent.
At Friday’s gathering, students, teachers and faith leaders from around the borough spoke about trust and starting again after facing difficulty and strife.
“This week there was a true story that was painful, and this story has to be told,” said Rebecca Ostro Nagata, the assistant principal of general studies. “But it is not our only story. It is in no way the entirety of who we are as a community.”
FBI special agent Aaron Spivack told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency there was nothing SAR could have done to prevent what happened, calling Skolnick “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
“What can be done better? That’s an important part of this, too,” Krauss told The Press. “There was the FBI statement … nothing could have prevented this. But we have a responsibility to do whatever we could possibly do.”
Krauss and other administrators spoke with all grades this week about what happened, explaining the situation to each grade level in a way they could understand.
“I told them, actually, right now, I can’t tell you trust the adults,” Krauss said. “Because guess what? That didn’t work. But I told them I still believe that the overwhelming majority of the adults around them are people that care about them. And want only good.”
Krauss called the gathering Friday as a way start rebuilding that trust and joy within the school, bringing back a sense of normalcy after a tumultuous week. That included not just inspirational words from various community and religious leaders, but also by musician Noah Solomon, who led SAR in songs centered around gratefulness and protection. As he sang, students and teachers joined arms.
“We come here on Monday morning and we’re going to be very happy to come to school on just a regular day,” Krauss said. “We’re going to get a lot of rest this Shabbat, and we’re going to remember to be grateful for everything that we have, and for the people who are here and who take care of us.”
Read more about this ongoing story in the Sept. 26 print edition of The Riverdale Press.