Snooping on Students – Can I take action based on a student’s private letter?

Q. I’m a high school teacher. I recently found a student’s note that showed that he was engaging in immoral and potentially dangerous activities. Should I take action to contact the student or his parents? GS

A. This is a most important question which requires several layers of analysis.

The first thing to know is that it is generally forbidden to read other people’s private mail without permission. Rabbi Yaakov Hagiz explains that this is implicit in the Torah prohibition on gossip. What difference does it make, asks Rabbi Hagiz, if I reveal people’s private information to others or to myself? The prohibition was also formalized in a famous ban of Rabbenu Gershom, one of the leading early medieval authorities.

On the other hand, we know that sometimes, private information may be revealed if disclosing it is the only way to achieve an important benefit. (Several past columns, available in our archive, have discussed the stringent conditions for permitting this kind of private information.) One of these is revealing information to a parent or teacher when necessary for the youngster’s moral education. Indeed, we know that a parent or teacher is permitted even to give corporal punishment if this is the only way to discipline a child.

So it seems that you would be able to act on the basis of the student’s note. Yet we need to carefully consider the wisdom of such a course. We’ve just pointed out that Jewish law technically permits spanking children when necessary for discipline; yet simultaneously our tradition warns us that this method of discipline is likely to be counterproductive, especially for an older child. The Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law states: “One who beats an older child is worthy of being placed under a ban, as this is likely to lead [the child] astray.” A high school student is certainly considered “an older child.” The same caution should apply to reading a student’s note.

Based on this same reasoning, the renowned ethicist Rabbi David Bleich warns against reading students’ correspondence. “Procedures involving violation of privacy are likely to be counter-productive. To be successful in their efforts, educators must gain and retain the confidence and trust of their students. It is virtually impossible to impart ethical sensitivity while employing means which are themselves perceived by students as being unethical in nature.”

The only exception would be if action were necessary to stave off clear and present danger.

SOURCES: Responsa Hilkhot Ketanot 1:276; Be’er HaGola commentary Yoreh Deah 334:123; Chafetz Chaim I 8:3; Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 240:20; Contemporary Halakhic Problems Volume II by Rabbi J. David Bleich.