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Schools ill-equipped to respond to teen dating violence

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

The field of dating violence is relatively new, Carrie Mulford, coordinator of the Federal Interagency Workgroup on Teen Dating Violence, said. "We can't look back to see how dating violence norms have changed over time because people weren't really doing research in this area until recently." However, recognition of it as an issue has recently drawn the attention of many organizations, including government researchers such as Mulford.

Many parents aren't aware that it's such a problem until their kid is the one being victimized, clinical child psychologist Barry Plummer said. "This has gotten out of hand quickly." Forty-seven percent of teens said they had been victimized by controlling behaviors of an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend in 2009, according to a study by Liz Claiborne Inc. and the Family Violence Prevention Fund. Nearly 1 in 3 teens reported sexual or physical abuse or threats.

What are the causes?

Burke remembers meeting her perpetrator near the beginning of her sophomore year. She and some new friends had skipped class to go to the mall, inviting her future ex-boyfriend. "I was instantly drawn to him," Burke said.

Three months into their relationship, Burke recalled her ex-boyfriend starting to get mad about what she wore to school and who she talked to. "He hit and punched me every day, and the sex became violent."

When Burke told her ex-boyfriend she was pregnant, she recalls him holding a knife to her neck, threatening to kill her. She feared for her life. "He pushed me down the stairs and hit me with a rod."

Burke said she miscarried. She got a protective order against her ex-boyfriend a and he wound up on probation.

In October, the now ex-boyfriend pleaded no contest to allegedly pushing a later girlfriend, AshLee Bambrough, out of a moving vehicle. Burke and Bambrough have joined together to raise awareness, speaking about their experience at high schools across the state and creating a Facebook page, "Team AshLee," to update others on the case.

Many youth in violent relationships accept violence because their friends do, Mulford said. He says spreading the word about what is and isn't acceptable to teens can help get at the root of the issue.

Boys and girls who showed aggression against a partner reportedly acted out of jealousy or anger, Mulford found in research. Studies show that boys say they use violence to control the relationship, where girls are more prone to show aggression in self-defense, Mulford said.

Teens pick these patterns up early on in life, Khubchandani said. "This needs to be prevented before they begin believing this is the norm."

What are schools doing?

There is a gap in education in which students aren't learning about what is and isn't a healthy relationship, said Cristina Escobar, director of Love is Respect — an Austin, Texas-based collaboration between Break the Cycle and the National Dating Abuse Helpline, which seeks to educate and empower youth and young adults to prevent and end teen dating violence.

Break the Cycle distributes curriculum to schools across the country, trains teachers and school counselors, connects schools with community resources, and puts policies in place with a protocol to follow when an issue arises.

Love is Respect offers a national, 24/7 hotline — launched in 2007 with help from founding sponsor Liz Claiborne Inc. — that is accessible by phone or Internet to parents, teachers and students.

Additional programs are being implemented to help teachers educate teens about the issue. The National Crime Prevention Program has instituted a program called Community Works, which gives middle and high school teachers curriculum to educate students about violence, usually in an after-school format. The program, which has reached over 800 community work sites within the U.S., is focused on involving teens in discussion and solutions, National Crime Prevention Program Communications and Marketing Director Michelle Boykins said.

Teens should be aware of the issue, but schools also should handle reports of dating violence consistently, said Barbara Higgins, family crimes and intervention coordinator and victim advocate with the Sandy police. Instead, different schools follow different policies.

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