Most high school health classes (particularly in public schools, where programs are often underfunded and rushed) barely scrape the surface of dating violence when there are other hot-button health dangers to deal with: high-risk sex practices and HIV, for instance.
A recent study from Ball State University printed in the August issue of Pediatrics indicates just how low of a priority it is: 81.3% of high schools do not have a standard protocol or procedure in place for responding to reports of dating violence. Almost half of the respondents cite a lack of faculty members who have been formally trained on how to respond to such an issue, and 28% admit that compared with these other health issues, the threat of dating violence is "minor."
Recent studies by the CDC reported that around 10% of teens across the country had been physically hurt by a significant other within the last year. As the various cruelties of high school dating have become increasingly blunt—and public—thanks to Facebook and texting, the ongoing lack of attention to the issue can lead to radical tragedies. In 2009, Emily Silverstein, a 19 year-old Gettysburg student (with whom I attended high school) was strangled and stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend Kevin Schaeffer. However, unlike STIs or drunk driving, it's sometimes not as easy to pin down and teach the causation and avoidance of dating violence; friends and family continued to insist that, before the murder, Schaeffer hadn't even hit Silverstein, but after their relationship ended, he sunk into volatile, erratic depression.
Jagdish Khubchandani, a head researcher on the Ball State study, said:
[This is] the first research project to identify the need of formal training on adolescent dating violence for school personnel. Hopefully, this study will be a pioneer in helping establish school policies, protocols and procedures for adolescent dating violence prevention.
But there's already been a small push in the right direction. For the last three years, Boston's Public Health Commission has partnered with local social service agencies to put on an annual "Break-up Summit" seminar for area teenagers, which aims to teach constructive ways to resolve conflict in a relationship as well as end it—in person—in a way that doesn't encourage any destructive escalation. ( The nationwide equivalent, Start Strong, has spread to high schoolers in 11 cities.)
The head of Boston's start strong chapter, Nicole Daley, cites that breakups can cause "depression, low self-esteem, falling academic grades, and even unwanted pregnancies in cases where one partner tries to manipulate the other." Cheating, Daley points out, is seen in popular media as an excuse for violence, and must be discouraged.
The seminar encouraged teens to define with their partner whether they were "casual," "serious," "friends with benefits," or any other specific term that could limit future ambiguities or misunderstandings. Which, frankly, is something us fully-formed human beings could probably benefit from doing more often. In the wake of the Ball State study's findings, hopefully Start Strong will soon be boasting more than its scant $18 million national budget. Fingers crossed.
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