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Schools Have a Responsibility to Be Courageous About Teen Dating and Domestic Violence

                          Steven R. DiSalvo, Ph.D.

The root of domestic violence lies in power and control over another human being. The outcome is the mental and physical abuse that follows.As we see an increased number of domestic violence incidents among high school, college and professional athletes, we should be acting to have schools, coaches, teachers, counselors and parents do more to identify the signs of abuse and to act accordingly to intervene and prevent physical and emotional injury. Students should know that it is wrong to exert control over anyone, especially when characterized by violence.Schools can demonstrate the importance of this issue by instituting policies that underscore intolerance; this means prevention, punitive measures and openness.Standing by silently as abuse takes place and, worse, avoiding confrontation for fear of hurting an institution's reputation is inexcusable. Those at the top, college presidents, board members and coaches ought to be acting -- vociferously and openly -- knowing that fans, supporters, sponsors and advertisers will ultimately respect those who take a stand, just as the cowardly will suffer. School workers at all levels can be helpful -- maintenance engineers, cafeteria workers, security personnel, parking lot attendants, probation officers, bus drivers and parent volunteers -- because they see students in informal settings.Research shows prevention and early intervention efforts are effective in reducing teen dating/ domestic violence and sexual assault.First, parents and professionals should know the signs:

  • When asked about a relationship, the young person says, "fine," without making eye contact.
  • The teen or young adult seems to have little social interaction with other teens; they no longer hang out with their usual friends.
  • They give suspicious excuses when you ask a boyfriend's/girlfriend's behavior.
  • Attendance problems at school.
  • One person in the relationship is clearly controlling the other.
  • Obvious signs like injuries, bruising, long-sleeved or other clothing that would cover bruises.
  • Prevention is just as important, and must be a prolonged, measured and determined undertaking. According to the American Bar Association's Teen Dating Violence Prevention Recommendations, school personnel should:
  • Work with students to define teen dating violence and educate the student body, at least annually at an event that really draws attention to the issue.
  • Employ teachers whose actions show their priority is the kids -- not just on paper, or during official meetings, but all the time.
  • Offer encouragement to students who exhibit signs of low self-esteem.
  • Give students individual and special attention and recognize when a student is upset; ask them what the problem is.
  • Have a flexible nature, but be consistent about the school's discipline policies; the ability to enforce classroom policies that require students to treat each other respectfully; the ability to maintain an adult demeanor instead of becoming the students' equal.
  • Provide a welcoming opportunity for kids to talk one-on-one with teachers and make classrooms a comfortable place.
  • Create opportunities for students to speak out about things. If they have a serious problem, this may be the opportunity they seize to ask for help.
  • Encourage classroom discussions on proper relationship behaviors.
  • High-quality, developmentally appropriate instructional materials (such as videos of people's actual stories) to teach teens about teen dating violence and its dangers are effective teaching tools. Training materials need to be about real life-incidents, (not mock 'imaginary' trials or other portrayals by obvious actors, or actors who are obviously not teens).
  • Find non-embarrassing ways to bring shy or reluctant students into the group.
  • Explore ways to create confidential methods for students to get help, such as granting special passes so students can more easily have chats with teachers or participate in peer group discussions.
  • Ensure awareness information addresses cultural differences and needs.
  • Make it clear there are possible legal ramifications if a teen dating violence incident occurs on school grounds.
  • Teachers must learn about their state laws and the issues involved if a student tells them personal information because school personnel are mandated reporters in certain matters.

At our campus, Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, we are using the Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation model to create a safe space within our gates for victims to find refuge. At a designated room/lounge, they will find a place to talk to a trained professional, to read up on the subject and to meet other students who have also been victimized. Because we know that it takes time for victims to share their stories, we hope this spot will engender a support system that will lead to increased reporting and eventual solutions.Our staff members will work with victims to help them seek counseling, report their aggressors to authorities, find shelter, if necessary and otherwise guide them through an often intimidating process. We will be prepared to work with law enforcement, when necessary.School personnel must be educated to recognize their responsibility to children and young adults so they take action when they see something, or when something is reported to them.

School officials must make and appropriately enforce specific school policy about what is NOT acceptable.

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