DC Jewish preschool accused of enabling sexual abuse in lawsuit

Eight families say a teacher at a Jewish preschool in Washington repeatedly sexually abused their children over the past two years, and they contend the school’s leader and a prominent synagogue did nothing about it despite warnings.

Claims of sexual abuse against children ages 2 to 4 are outlined in a  civil lawsuit filed late Monday against the Washington Hebrew Congregation, which operates the Edlavitch Tyser Early Childhood Center, and its head of schools, Deborah “DJ” Schneider Jensen. 

The suit, filed in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia, alleges the defendants enabled sexual abuse of children by the same man – Jordan Silverman, an assistant teacher who arrived at the preschool in 2016 after a long career as a photographer in Vermont.

Attorneys for the parents and children say the abuse, which spanned from March 2016 to August 2018 on the preschool’s campus, included the “most grievous, demeaning and damaging forms of sexual abuse” and was “systemic and regular.” The victims were girls and boys, they say. 

The lawsuit’s 23 plaintiffs – children and their parents – are pursuing several claims of negligence, arguing the school and Jensen are liable for allowing the abuse to persist. They contend that Silverman was “allowed and encouraged” to be alone with the children with no other adult present. They say that violated a Washington “two-deep” policy that requires at least two adults to be present with children at all times at licensed child development centers.

“Essential protection against abuse of this type in a child-caring environment requires visibility and accountability of all adults present at all times,” the lawsuit reads. “Defendants provided for neither.”

The suit, which lists seven children only as Jane and John Does and keeps the parents anonymous as well, seeks an amount of compensation to be determined by a jury for damages, both monetary and non-monetary.

In August, The Washington Post reported that D.C. police were investigating allegations of sexual abuse at the Washington Hebrew Congregation preschool.

A statement on behalf of Washington Hebrew Congregation in response to the lawsuit said the synagogue is “carefully reviewing the complaint.” The temple’s leaders say they reported the sexual abuse allegations in August as soon as they learned of them and have “continually and fully cooperated” with the criminal investigation.

“Child safety has always been our top priority,” the statement reads. It  rejects allegations that the early childhood center violated the law or state regulations. 

“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,” the statement says.

Neither Jensen nor Silverman could immediately be reached for comment by USA TODAY. 

The Washington Hebrew Congregation sent a letter to parents in August that said an employee at its early childhood center was put on administrative leave after allegations that the employee “may have engaged in inappropriate conduct involving one or more children.” The school did not disclose the name of the employee at the request of police.

Plaintiffs are represented by the Sexual Abuse, Sex Trafficking and Domestic Violence group of the D.C.-based law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, which specializes in whistle-blower cases against corporations and antitrust, civil rights and human rights cases.  

“Silverman’s alleged behavior is only a part of this story,” Steve Toll, managing partner of the law firm, said in a statement. The preschool and Jensen “not only created an environment that enabled this predatory behavior but failed to act on a myriad of indications that something was wrong.”

“They must be held accountable so that no child in this program ever suffers again,” Toll said.

Michael Dolce, another plaintiff’s attorney, urged anyone with concerns that the accused teacher may have abused other children in Washington or Vermont to contact law enforcement. “Law enforcement research indicates that many child sex abusers have multiple victims over time,” he said. 

Jensen, who was hired by Washington Hebrew Congregation to lead the early childhood center in 2014, announced in February plans to leave her position after the end of the academic year. In a letter on her departure, she said it’s time to pursue other initiatives in early childhood education, finish writing her second book and focus on training teachers. She did not refer to the sexual abuse investigation. 

The suit says Silverman used “specific tactics against his victims, and targeted specific victims, to reduce the chance of detection.”

Plaintiffs say Jensen “ignored, rejected and purposefully silenced repeated warnings and expressions of concern, from parents and teachers alike” that started one month into Silverman’s tenure at the school. The suit says Silverman was hired despite “no professional training, credentials or experience in early childhood education.”

The suit says witnesses observed him taking children to areas of the school alone, but Jensen did not open an investigation despite the concerns. The lawsuit alleges there were complaints that Silverman returned late after being alone with students.  

Plaintiffs say Jensen refused to direct or order Silverman to cease engaging in such conduct; took no action to investigate the concerns; did not restrict Silverman’s access to children; made no changes in policies and procedures; failed to report the misconduct to law enforcement, child welfare authority or the school’s licensing authority; and failed to terminate Silverman.

Among the damages, the lawsuit cites the cost of medical, psychological and psychiatric evaluation and care and medications; vocational, rehabilitative, occupational and physical therapies; and the loss of future earnings and earning capacity.

The suit cites the cost of transporting the children to health care facilities; educational expenses; the cost of therapy; mental anguish, humiliation, embarrassment and emotional distress; pain and suffering; the loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life and bodily injury.

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