What starts off as teasing and name-calling in middle school can lead to dating violence later in middle school and in high school. Adults as well as younger people are frequently unaware of this trend.
Likewise, many are not tuned into just how regularly teen dating violence occurs and what consequences it may carry. “In general, we don’t recognize how much of an issue it is, how many people are affected by dating violence,” says Molly Zemke with Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS). Zemke is Prevention Program Coordinator at DAIS, a 35-year-old organization that serves victims of violence throughout Dane County.
The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) define teen dating violence as “the physical, sexual, or psychological/emotional violence within a dating relationship, as well as stalking. It can occur in person or electronically and may occur between a current or former dating partner.“
Just how common is teen dating violence? In a national survey, nearly 10 percent of high school students said their boyfriend or girlfriend hit, slapped, or otherwise physically hurt them within the past year. (2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey) And when it comes to verbal and/or psychological abuse, almost 30 percent of teens reported these experiences during the prior year.
So what’s the good news?
Every day young people are hurting other young people through dating violence. The CDC reports that victims of teen dating violence are more apt to do poorly in school, binge drink, attempt suicide, and physically fight with others. They are also prone to carry the patterns of violence into future relationships.
The good news, however, is that there is a program that effectively targets teen dating violence in Dane County — and plans are in place to develop one, if not two, new high school sites for the 2013-2014 year. Called the Men’s Program, DAIS provides the program under the framework of DELTA, a program of the CDC that focuses on primary prevention of domestic abuse. The curriculum includes such topics as healthy masculinity and conflict resolution, along with a discussion of how young men can be allies with young women to stop sexual assault and dating violence.
Presently held at Madison’s West High School, its format is a drop-in program (“club”) held over the lunch hour, once a week for 50 minutes. Up to 40 a year participate in the men’s club, which started in 2006. Zemke co-facilitates sessions with Rick Rosen, a social worker at West who’s volunteered with DELTA/the young men’s program for several years. Most times, a core group of about 20 young men attend on a more frequent basis —some of which return the next school year.
“We have juniors coming this year that have been involved since their freshman year,” Zemke explains. “Those students have adopted a leadership role within the club, so they’ve really role modeled and mentored the young men in the club.”
Over time, they move beyond self-reflection about their own attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs to reach out and talk with others. The past couple years, the young men co-presented at Sexual Assault Awareness Day, speaking alongside a group of young women in the Imagine Group (a program of the Rape Crisis Center also held at the high school.) The young men have also presented at a Healthy Teen Summit statewide conference in the past. DAIS also hosts one-time presentations in other schools in Dane County as well as half-day trainings for teachers around prevention.
Making an impact
An independent firm that provides support for the CDC’s DELTA Program compares attitudes and beliefs of the young men who’ve participated in the men’s program with other high school males in Dane County. “We’ve seen some promising results in terms of changes in attitudes and beliefs,” says Zemke. One of the things they evaluate is bystander intervention; essentially what would they do if they witnessed dating violence or abuse—such as getting a teacher, speaking up if they hear a friend making inappropriate comments, etc.
It appears that teen dating violence may be even more prevalent in middle school kids than previously thought. A recent survey of more than 1,400 seventh graders showed more than 1/3 had been victims of dating violence that year. “Middle school provides a critical window of opportunity to teach young adolescents about healthy relationships and prevent teen dating violence,” says James Marks, M.D., who directs the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Group.
Last November, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) released findings from a study of dating violence and sexual harassment prevention programs in 30 middle schools. “When school-level interventions were implemented in the study,” stated Dr. John H. Laub, director of the NIJ, “dating violence dropped by up to 50%. “ (http://blogs.justice.gov/main/archives/1749) Many schools, however, do not have the supports to put such programs into place.
In response to these findings, DAIS is exploring the possibility of providing primary prevention services in Dane County middle schools. “We’re hoping to partner in a sustained program with middle schoolers in the future,” says Zemke.
Bullying and abusiveness
Recent research shows that dating violence and bullying often co-exist in teenagers.
“We’re seeing similar behaviors, and also seeing that individuals that are bullying, especially in middle school, are at a higher risk of being abusive in their relationships later,” Zemke states.
Indeed there are interrelated issues, and a cross section between bullying and dating violence especially in middle schoolers. It’s really about a power imbalance, often based on gender, perceived sexuality, race, etc., Zemke says. Dating violence is similar behavior-wise to bullying, in that it tends to be a power imbalance between boys and girls, especially when physical violence is occurring.
Interested in learning more, getting some materials, or finding out about hosting teacher training or a young men’s group at your middle school, high school, or community center? Call Molly Zemke at (608) 251-1237, Ext. 306.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. For more information about this subject, visit www.abuseintervention.org