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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."

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.

Teen dating violence is not tied to any specific code in many states, including Utah, Higgins said. "It's an umbrella to a lot of other crimes." Though much more can be done, schools try to work with officers in removing youth from schools or changing school schedules, Higgins said.

"If a student is being harassed by another student, they are encouraged to report that to any adult in the system," said Christopher Williams, the Community Relations Director for Davis School District. "That information will be shared with student services. "I've worked for the school district for 13 years and I can say that I don't know of any situation in which harassment or bullying or intimidation has been allowed, when it has been reported."

Moving forward

Ultimately, teens themselves can play the biggest role in combating teen dating violence, Plummer said. "The kids on the periphery are the most powerful agents of change. They can stop and convince their other peers to stop what they're doing."

Burke, for her part, has since learned to pick up the pieces and move forward with full confidence. She transferred to Canyon Heights, a private school within the same district, where she finished her senior year.

Burke went on to hairstyling school, at which point she met her husband, Gregory Burke. The happy couple is expecting a child.

"I am at peace in my life now. I slowly over the years put myself all back together again and have grown tremendously from this lifeless girl into this full of life, confident woman," Burke wrote on her blog. "I want this so much for ... all other victims. We are strong survivors who together can make a big difference."

Email: rlowry@desnews.com

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