Dating violence: What it is, and what schools and parents can do


Each year, one in 10 American teenagers suffers physical violence at the hands of a boyfriend or girlfriend, according to President Obama's proclamation declaring February "National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month" for the fourth consecutive year.

The national Centers for Disease Control 2011 survey showed 9.4 percent of high school students reporting being hit, slapped or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend in the last 12 months.

Despite its prevalence, adults are often unaware that teens experience dating violence, the CDC's website states. According to CDC and other experts, this is due to shame, stigma, fear of retaliation, lack of awareness, and adults' tendency to minimize issues if reported.

Research has shown a strong connection between teen dating violence and increased risks affecting education, physical and mental health.

"Experiencing such abuse can have devastating effects on academic achievement, campus safety, and positive development. The trauma of relationship ... violence can lead to depression, poor concentration, drug and alcohol abuse (and) suicidal tendencies," according to a report commissioned in 2008 by the California Attorney General's office and Department of Education.

Other governmental and nonprofit agencies also cite widespread impacts, including beyond the victim and perpetrator to their families, schools and community.

Experts recognize that teen dating abuse can begin a dangerous and vicious cycle of relationship violence, which is one reason advocacy organizations nationwide are working to raise awareness about the importance of building healthy relationships and to develop training and protocols for response and intervention when dating violence occurs.

"Unhealthy relationships can start early and last a lifetime," CDC's website explains. "Teens who are victims in high school are at higher risk for victimization through college. ... (They) may carry the patterns of violence into future relationships."

"Without proper support and intervention, young victims find it extremely difficult to change abusive patterns as they become adults," a fact sheet published by Break the Cycle, a leader in the field of teen dating violence prevention, states.

Although all victims of gender-based violence -- an umbrella term that includes dating violence, as well as sexual assault and human trafficking -- are affected negatively, research shows that females are more often the victims; women also experience more severe and longer-lasting consequences than do males.

The California Attorney General's report defines "teen dating violence" as "a pattern of behavior where one person uses threats of or actual physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse to control his or her partner ... and can include verbal abuse ... stalking and other forms of intimidation."

After a break-up is the most volatile time for dating violence to occur, according to Emily Austin, staff lawyer with Los Angeles-based nonprofit Peace Over Violence, and co-author of the California Attorney General's report. Spikes in violence occur then because control over a partner is threatened, Austin and other experts say.

The CDC includes stalking in its definition of dating violence, as does the Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women because it is associated with patterns of violence.

In addition to stalking behaviors, experts say that [ other warning signs can include: when partners repeatedly check your cell phones or emails without permission, constantly put you and your friends down, display extreme jealousy, have an explosive temper or make false accusations.

In Feb. 2013, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent a letter to all chief state school officers asking them to take action to elevate awareness of this issue, provide training and education to staff and students, and develop policies and procedures to help prevent and respond to incidents. Duncan emphasized the need for a comprehensive approach due to "the unique challenges" presented by dating violence, including victim reluctance to report and the trauma impacts involved.

Schools are well-positioned to respond to dating violence, most experts agree, citing the large percentage of dating violence incidents that occur at school (about 40 percent), and the fact that schools are at the center of teens' social lives.

Lisa Parks, program director for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, says that prevention starts with educating young people about how to build healthy relationships, how to identify the signs of an unhealthy dating relationship, and where to get help if abuse occurs.

"The school environment is the place to start," Parks said. "Everybody in the school community needs to know how to intervene early, and who is responsible for what. It should be spelled out." Her organization and other dating violence prevention professionals also view schools as the hub for reaching the greater parent community.

A specific focus of prevention programs is learning how to respect boundaries, Parks said. In an unhealthy relationship, boundary violations occur constantly, with adults and peers often witness to examples long before violence erupts. Helping teens learn skills to recognize and change the dynamic is key. Noticing the warning signs, and intervening early and appropriately can make all the difference.

As teen couples become close, a "sense of ownership" can arise, Parks said, and in turn invade a partner's sense of autonomy and privacy. Stalking is one manifestation of this dynamic, where boundaries are completely disrespected, Parks said.

School communities need to work "to normalize bringing up the issues," Parks said. School communities also benefit from partnering with local police and community-based groups, to help connect victims and perpetrators to nearby resources offering support and specialized services.

An important goal, Parks said, is to be able to send students off to college well-equipped to deal with sexual and relationship issues they will encounter in that typically larger, less structured environment.

When it comes to dating-violence curriculum and intervention protocols, there is no need to re-invent the wheel. According to Austin, Peace Over Violence developed one of the first teen-based dating violence curriculum called "In Touch with Teens," which is now widely used in California. Austin also referenced an updated "Start Strong" prevention program funded by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation in collaboration with Peace Over Violence and other groups nationwide.

Models exist for response and intervention policies as well: One was released in 2010 by Break the Cycle; the other more recently by the Roberts Woods Johnson Foundation as part of its "Futures Without Violence" initiative.

Both models contain comprehensive guidelines for school personnel regarding enforcement of protection orders, determining appropriate accommodations if both students remain on campus, and developing school-based stay-away agreements. The Futures Without Violence model policy also details Title IX duties and requirements.

According to Austin, school districts in Los Angeles, San Diego and Oakland currently are working on implementing versions of these model policies. The Los Angeles school board was an early leader, adopting a policy resolution to address dating violence issues in 2011, including hiring a special coordinator, training school staff, and educating students and parents.

The federal Office on Violence Against Women has awarded grants to LAUSD and districts in eight other states to support these school efforts to implement dating violence prevention and response programs, according to Kelley Hampton with Break the Cycle, one of the groups working with schools nationwide under the federal grant program.

Palo Alto district officials and administrators declined to discuss with the Weekly their own efforts regarding school policies, trainings and protocols for responding to incidents of dating-related violence, stalking and harassment, as described in the editor's note accompanying the main story.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly provided the Weekly with written information, however, describing a variety of district-wide efforts "to prevent discrimination, harassment and related bullying based on sex and to ensure that our schools and classrooms are safe and respectful places for all," according to his email.

The materials provided describe numerous trainings of staff, students and parents around bullying, harassment, disability awareness and discrimination issues. Multiple school curricula and activities also promote social kindness, respect, healthy relationships, responsible Internet use, and the importance of approaching trusted adults when help is needed.

Relationships and sexual misconduct issues are covered in high school Living Skills curriculum and "many related activities," Skelly noted.

Skelly also referenced the new board policy on sexual harassment (BP 5145.7), adopted by the board on Feb. 11, which includes "dating violence, stalking and relationship abuse" for the first time in the list of prohibited conduct that may constitute sexual harassment. This policy requires all reports and complaints alleging prohibited conduct to be handled under the district's Uniform Complaint Procedures (UCP), set out in [ AR 1312.3, also newly revised.

"We are committed to continuing to move this important work forward at the community, district, school, classroom, and student levels," Skelly wrote.

The district's efforts are also detailed in the district's written response to an apparent data request from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in connection with the sexual harassment compliance review investigation the Office for Civil Rights began in June 2013 at Palo Alto High School. The five-page undated summary appears to have been prepared in early February.

According to this document, posted on the district's website, the district's Title IX coordinator, Associate Superintendent Charles Young, has attended two conferences on sexual harassment and sexual misconduct, in 2013 and 2014. He also attended sexual-harassment trainings during 2004-11 in Pleasanton, where he was then employed.

This document also reports that no complaints of sexual harassment involving Palo Alto High School students were processed using the UCP since the beginning of the 2011 school year. Such incidents that did occur (a total of 30 over the past 2.5 school years, according to the document) were addressed using Paly's discipline procedures. Also the document notes that the only other incidents of which the district had notice are two additional incidents that the district has "reviewed with OCR's investigating attorneys during the initial phase of this investigation."

With a new Office for Civil Rights investigation of sexual harassment incidents just begun at Gunn High School in late March (see sidebar, Title IX issues raised in latest federal civil-rights case), the district's response to the data request in that investigation has not been made public at this time.

For adults: When a young person discloses abuse in a dating relationship

• Approach without judging sexual or relationship choices

• Don't assume sexual orientation or gender identity

• Be honest about your ability to keep information confidential

• Don't control the situation, unless an emergency requires you to

• Ask youth how they want to handle the situation

• Don't minimize the abuse or importance of the relationship

• Provide information on local, youth-friendly resources

Know what to say:

• "You deserve to be treated with respect."

• "This is important."

• "I believe you."

• "I'm glad you told me about this."

• "It's not your fault."

• "I want you to be safe."

• "I'm here if you ever need help or want to talk."

Source: Kelley Hampton, Break the Cycle (

More information on how parents can help if their teen is in an unhealthy dating relationship is posted on the "Love Is Respect" website (a collaboration of Break the Cycle and the National Dating Abuse Hotline).

Also, Palo Alto Police Department school liaison DuJuan Green recommends getting information about local agencies and support through the nonprofit Next Door in San Jose.

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