County Effort Fights Teen Dating Violence

By Grace Rubenstein

(Adam Foster: Flickr)

(Adam Foster: Flickr)

We think of domestic violence as something that happens among adults. But as some young survivors from Contra Costa County recently told me, abuse is also alarmingly common between teen boyfriends and girlfriends.

Evidence has been growing that it starts even younger than we previously imagined. A study published in March surveyed more than 1,400 seventh graders of diverse races. More than one in three reported being psychologically abused by a boyfriend or girlfriend within the past six months. Nearly one in three reported experiencing physical dating violence within the same timeframe.

Their average age? 12.

The study was commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Blue Shield of California.

Revelations like that are slowly making the long-hidden problem of teen dating abuse more visible – especially at schools, ground zero for teen romance. Shocking events like the murder of 17-year-old Cindi Santana, stabbed by her ex-boyfriend on campus at her Los Angeles high school last September, have put the issue more on the radar.

“The difference between domestic violence and teen relationship violence is that school is often the platform for teen relationship violence, so there’s an even greater urgency for schools and policymakers to address it,” Los Angeles Unified School District board member Steve Zimmer told me in a recent phone interview.

Research also shows that people’s relationship habits are laid down early, and the effects of childhood abuse can last a lifetime. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report [PDF] that among adult women who suffer rape, physical violence or stalking, 22 percent experienced their first incident of abuse between ages 11 and 17.

Schools are a pivotal place for prevention. Yet so far, only two California school districts – Oakland and Los Angeles – have explicit policies on dating violence, according to the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. (Oakland’s passed in 2006. Los Angeles adopted its policy last October, but it was in the works before Cindi Santana’s murder.)

Contra Costa County is mounting a countywide effort and hopes some of its school districts will be next. A bill by California Assembly Member Ricardo Lara (D – Bell Gardens) that would have required middle and high schools to spell out teen dating abuse policies in their safety plans recently stalled in a state Senate committee.

At the same time, recent research [PDF] shows that the classic prevention tactic – classroom lessons – by itself is not enough. To really change teens’ behavior, you have to change their environment. The CPEDV is leading a statewide campaign to get more schools to do this.

“If you look a the ecology of things, not one single intervention is going to do it. It’s got to be all these multitudes,” said Sharon Turner, regional director of the nonprofit STAND! for Families Free of Violence in Contra Costa County. “You need policy. You need conversations happening in the community about these things. You need visual reminders. You need the jargon and slogans about it. You need the social media piece.”

The LAUSD policy calls for a designated coordinator at each middle and high school to arrange for education on healthy relationships, awareness efforts, and intervention when abuse does occur. These coordinators would also reach out to parents and arrange ongoing training for school staff.

Zimmer, a key architect of the policy, said the training is critical. Without it, schools may mistakenly treat abuse as simply bad behavior that needs punishment, when in fact it’s a complex pattern that needs a more holistic intervention. Plus, untrained staff members may not know how to respond to reports of abuse.

“Without a protocol to deal with it, you do have moments of confusion that can become very dangerous for a child,” Zimmer said.

Yet even the communities most committed to preventing teen dating violence are running up against a hard wall: money. LAUSD’s policy, for the moment, exists only on paper. To fully implement it would cost about $2 million a year. There’s no spare money in the district budget, and Zimmer has struggled to get outside donations.

Compared to academics, he said, “I’ve had a really hard time convincing folks that this is as important as any performance metric or evaluation tool.”

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