Tackling dating violence in middle school

Published: Tuesday, June 5 2012 2:06 p.m. MDT

BOISE, Idaho — It's a poetry slam, with verses about heartache and love and loss, along with a dash of hope. The mix also contains coping strategies and warning signs because not all "love" is real or good.

The poets themselves are different, too. These poets are tweens and teens, many as young as seventh graders, because it turns out that's not too young to talk about dating violence and abusive relationships. It might even be the best time to get the message across, according to research that underpins this and other events sponsored by antiviolence groups. This one's the brainchild of one called "Start Strong Idaho."

The most recent report by the federal government's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System indicates that one-tenth of high school students say they have been physically hurt by someone they date.

Meanwhile, middle schoolers are growing up fast, Kelly Miller, a former domestic violence prosecutor and head of the Idaho organization, told the New York Times. "Most young people have a sense of what's abusive, but they don't know what a healthy relationship means."

Dating violence is a topic getting a lot of attention. Research indicates prime time for dating violence is among those ages 16 to 24, but it can start much younger. Three-fourths of seventh graders have had a boyfriend or girlfriend, researchers found. That recent study for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Blue Shield of California Foundation found "many seventh graders are dating and experiencing physical, psychological and electronic dating violence. More than one in three students surveyed report being a victim of psychological dating violence and nearly one in six report being a victim of physical dating violence." A third had experienced electronic dating aggression.

The National Center for Victims of Crime describes dating violence as "controlling, abusive and aggressive behavior in a romantic relationship. It can happen in straight or gay relationships. It can include verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, or a combination of them." And it can happen to girls or to boys, though it says they abuse each other differently: "Girls are more likely to yell, threaten to hurt themselves, pinch, slap, scratch, or kick. Boys injure girls more, are more likely to punch their partner, and more likely to force them to participate in unwanted sexual activity."

The center is one of many entities that offers strategies for coping with and ending abusive relationships. That's one of the focuses, as well, of Start Strong, which is a national collaboration that has local chapters. It's a partnership of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Futures Without Violence.

The approaches being used to broach the topic of relationship violence with increasingly young groups of youths range from classroom discussions to the poetry slams, art competitions, targeted health class lessons and more. Private and taxpayer-funded grants are taking aim at the topic.

The New York Times article tells the story of two young women who have overcome painful middle school experiences with abusive relationships. Laura Hampikian, now 20, was manipulated by an emotionally needy boyfriend into detaching from her other friends and came to believe it was "her responsibility to keep him alive," writes Jan Hoffman.

The other, Sara Hope Leonard, now 17, lived by her then-boyfriend's rules: no group dates, no giving her phone number to other boys, isolation from other friends.

It took each of them a year to break away.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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