In a recent blog about song lyrics, I expressed my concern about how a popular Eminem song could send the wrong message to teen fans about domestic violence. Shortly thereafter I learned of a newly proposed bi-partisan bill that, if passed, would require New Jersey schools to offer age-appropriate dating violence education to students, and relevant training to educators.
This is not something new. There are several states that have similar legislation or bills that are pending. Some laws were in response to tragedies and named in honor of victims. Others, perhaps, were proposed in response to a growing problem.
Rhode Island established a law in the name of Lindsay Ann Burke, a 23-year-old who was murdered by her boyfriend. The law requires school committees to adopt a policy for responding to incidents of teen dating violence and to educate their community-students, parents, staff, faculty, and administrators-on prevention and intervention.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines dating violence as the physical, sexual, verbal, or psychological/emotional violence that occurs within a dating relationship. The CDC reports that one in ten adolescents reported being a victim of physical dating violence, and one in four adolescents report verbal, physical, emotional or sexual abuse each year. Other "facts" provided by the CDC: One in five adolescents reports being emotionally abused; one in five high school girls reports being physically or sexually abused by a dating partner; 54 percent of high-schoolers report dating violence among peers; one in three teens reports having a friend who was injured, slapped, or hit by a dating partner; nearly 80 percent of young female victims who reported physical abuse at the hands of their dating partners stayed in the relationship; nearly 20 percent of teen girls who have been in a relationship said that their boyfriend had threatened violence or self-harm in the event of a break-up; nearly 70 percent of young women who have been raped knew their rapist (the perpetrator was or had been a boyfriend, friend, or casual acquaintance); and the majority of teen dating abuse occurs in the home of one of the partners.
In response to the alarming statistics, the CDC embarked on a project entitled ChooseRespect in May of 2006. The project is intended to assist in the compilation of data regarding dating violence, to increase exposure to the problem, and to assist educators and parents in recognizing the signs of dating violence. It seems that many parents and friends who are closest to victims have reported noticing changes in the victim's behavior, but failed to recognize that they were signs of relationship violence.
Some warning signs that there may be violence in a dating relationship commonly reported by dating violence websites:
Name-calling and yelling - Does one teen in the relationship call the other names? Does he or she use insults to put the other person down?
Extreme jealousy - Does one teen in the relationship act incredibly jealous when the other talks to peers? Does the teen accuse their partner of flirting even when it's innocent conversation? Does a boyfriend dictate what his girlfriend wears, including makeup?
Making excuses - Does one teen in the relationship make excuses for the other or apologize for her behavior?
Canceling or changing plans - Does one teen cancel plans often, especially at the last minute, and the excuses for canceling don't make sense or sound true?
Unexplained Injuries - Does one teen have injuries for which she provides explanations that do not make sense?
Constant monitoring - Does one teen call, text message, or check up on the other constantly? Does one partner demand to know the other persons' plans or with whom she is spending time?
Uncontrolled Anger - Does one partner have a bad temper and does that teen throw things or break things when angry? Does one teen worry a lot about upsetting the other?
Isolation - Has one teen in the relationship given up spending time with friends? Has that teen stopped doing activities that used to be important? Does one partner in the relationship seem to discourage socializing?
Dramatic changes - Has the teen's appearance changed? Has the teen lost or gained weight? Have that teen's grades dropped? Does she seem depressed?
These are just some of the warning signs that a dating relationship may be an abusive one. I recommend checking out http://www.cdc.gov/chooserespect and http://www.acadv.org/dating for more comprehensive information and tips.
An article on the proposed New Jersey legislation contained many reader comments that were overwhelmingly opposed to the bill. Some called it feel-good legislation, while others called it a waste of time and money. While I understand the reluctance of folks to support bills that would cause the state to spend more money on schools, this proposal, to me, makes sense; and the cost is likely to be negligible.
The Rhode Island program is comprehensive and worthy of emulation. It includes mandates that would require schools to educate students in grades 7-12 with age-appropriate curriculum, as well as, strict policies for reporting and intervention by faculty who become aware of, or witness, abuse. The education of the students occurs during health class, and the teachers, during in-service training.
Teens learn about sex, pregnancy, childbirth, and disease in school in mandated health class; shouldn't they also learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships? Teens are new to relationships, so abusive and controlling behavior may appear as normal or an expression of love. Perhaps teens are not exposed to normal healthy relationships at home. A dating violence curriculum in schools would provide teens with the necessary information to recognize when their relationships are putting them at risk. They will also be in a position to watch out for their friends. Most importantly, education about teen dating violence should serve to empower teens by giving them the tools they need to help them make important decisions affecting their emotional and physical health.