Schools ill-equipped to respond to teen dating violence

Published: Thursday, May 9 2013 11:05 p.m. MDT

Katie Burke and her husband, Gregory Burke, have been happily married for three years. They currently live in West Jordan, Utah, where Katie works as a hairstylist.

Shannon & Chad Miller

CLEARFIELD, Utah — On a frigid December morning in 2003, 16-year-old Katie Payne walked into the common hall area at Clearfield High School with her friends before class, her then-boyfriend's arm around her. Amid high-spirited discussions revolving around weekend plans, Payne's silence went unnoticed.

None of her friends suspected she was fighting to hold back tears. On the way to school, she would later tell investigators, her boyfriend had banged her head against the dashboard, yelled at her, slapped her, called her names and sexually assaulted her, with threats if she told anybody.

After that day walking through the school's halls with his arm around her, she didn't tell anyone. Not for six agonizing months.

Today, Payne, whose name is now Katie Burke, is — fortunately — in a completely different place. She married a different man three years ago, and she and her husband are expecting a child. She is one of 1.5 million students per year who experience alleged physical abuse from a dating partner in high school.

Though Clearfield High School worked to help Burke when the situation came to their attention, 83 percent of schools in the U.S. do not have a protocol or procedure in place for responding to incidents of violence, according to a study published in last year in Pediatrics. School districts and teenage peers can do more to protect students who suffer abuse in relationships.

"What about the student who has been bruised and abused? Does she not deserve help from those who notice in the classroom?" said Jagdish Khubchandani, an assistant professor of community health education at Ball State University who authored the study. "I am surprised it is even a question whether schools are supposed to provide a safe climate, and respond to incidents of bullying and dating violence, knowing fully well that these issues are at large in the American society."

What are the trends?

The study surveyed 305 counselors, all members of the American School Counselor Association. Nearly 90 percent of respondents reported that training to assist victims of teen dating abuse has not been provided to personnel in their schools in the past two years. More than 60 percent of school counselors reported they had assisted victims in the past two years, despite the lack of training.

"There are so many victims and survivors of abuse, at a young age, who are not being assisted," Khubchandani said. "To me, that speaks volumes about the condition of adults who are in abusive relationships."

As a psychiatrist with a medical degree from India, Khubchandani saw the rising battle against adult domestic violence in the U.S. Khubchandani and was prompted to get to what he sees is the root of the issue — teen violence.

Nearly 20 percent of teens who are exposed to violence in high school are victims of domestic violence by the age of 24, according to a study conducted by the University of Washington.

Many instances of violence begin in schools. The U.S. Department of Justice reported that 3 million crimes occur in or around schools each year and every day an estimated 160,000 students skip school because they fear being physically harmed by their classmates, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

School employees are being taught by old handbooks that don't address current issues, Khubchandani said. "They're still stuck on tobacco and obesity, which is OK, but they need to see that there are more paramount challenges at stake today."

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