Instead of using their sleepovers to watch music videos and gossip—like so many of us used to—a group of six middle school girls from East Texas have been spending their free time discussing state legislation and planning a PSA about teen dating violence.
The group of 6th, 7th and 8th grade girls made the PSA as their outreach project for Destination Imagination, an organization that encourages student creativity through competitive problem-solving tournaments. While these particular girls still think boys are gross and don't necessarily like to communicate with them IRL, teen dating violence was an easy subject choice. The girls say they hear hallway gossip about boys who've called their girlfriends fat, and classmates who've threatened self-harm to avoid a breakup. They hope the video will alert their friends and peers to the fact that no one has to stay in a potentially damaging relationship.
The project is now much bigger than the girls ever intended: Last week, the group spent a day at the Texas Capitol, dressed in newly purchased blazers and pant suits, speaking with state lawmakers about amending an old bill—one that requires public schools in Texas to have a policy in place for dealing with and educating students about teen dating violence. The girls, after learning about this bill, came to the conclusion that it's not being properly enforced.
The old bill was passed in 2007 with support from a group called Texas Council on Family Violence, and while they were at the Capitol, the girls met with TCFV's Public Policy Director, Aaron Setliff. Setliff told me that while almost all Texas school districts have teen dating violence policies in place to comply with the law, there's little to no action taken when it comes to raising awareness or helping students affected by dating violence. A new bill has been filed that would create a workgroup to analyze these policies and find a better way to implement dating violence programs in schools like the ones the girls attend.
What started as a group project for a middle school-level competition has since grown into a push for policy change with the help of TCFV. Now the group's goal is to help find a way for Texas teens to learn what the signs of dating violence are, and how they can prevent and combat it within their own social circles.
The girls talked to me while they were in Austin at the Capitol, and told me about how their school project evolved into a drive to create statewide change for other teens.
The girls decided on an outreach project and topic in September.
Ashlyn Ellgass, eighth grade: Destination Imagination lets you choose your outreach projects. When we were trying to choose what we wanted to raise money for, we learned about a case where a guy put lighter fluid down a girl's throat, and that made all of our stomachs turn.
We started doing more and more research on it and looking around our schools too, and we found that there were multiple cases where the boyfriend was abusing the girlfriend. And it's not always physically—it's usually mentally. Whenever we saw that, we just knew that we needed to help.
Autumn Ellgass, seventh grade: We didn't realize how much of a problem it was until December, and we realized it was such a large problem on a very big scale.
Madi Canfield, eighth grade: We've never had problems with it, we don't even have boyfriends. But we see it happen every day in our school and we think that, since we're their age, we can relate to them the most. And we could get the message across better.
Ashlyn: There were many different ways that we could have shown it, like we could have done it in a local newspaper. But we thought that the PSA would be the most effective way to send the message. You don't see many kids our age reading the newspaper or actually reading all the articles in magazines, sometimes they just look at a bunch of pictures.
We're trying to show people, girls mostly—but sometimes it's the other way around—that you can stand up for yourself and you don't have to be controlled in the relationship, and that there are other ways to go than just to let people control you.
The group put on a haunted house for their community to raise money to cover the fee of airing the PSA on a local news station.
Anna Self, eighth grade: We wanted to do a haunted house, that's how we wanted to raise money and is why we had to start so early.
Ashlyn: We had volunteers, like kids from our school come volunteer and act in it and stuff like that.
Joy Nelms, eighth grade: It was open on Halloween weekend and the weekend before that, at first it was four nights but we decided to add on a night because it was going so well.
Madi: We made $1,407. One-four-oh-seven.
They filmed the PSA on Dec. 31, and then contacted Texas Advocacy Project, a legal services group that helps teens in abusive relationships, for permission to use their URL in the video.
Ashlyn: While we were doing research, we found Texas Advocacy Project and they were the only program that was most in line with our goals. So we contacted them and were showing them the PSA and asking if we can use their URL. Since then, we've been working with them for two or three months now.
At first we just wanted to spread the word and educate people about the problem and how big of a problem it was. We joined with Texas Advocacy Project and the project's just grown and grown, way bigger than we would ever expect it would.
Through research and working with Texas Advocacy Project, the girls found the old bill and realized they haven't seen it enforced in their schools. Since February is teen dating violence month, they decided to come to the Capitol on Feb. 3 to bring their project to the attention of state lawmakers. A TCFV representative told them about HB 1142, a newly filed bill that calls for a better implementation of school teen dating violence programs.
Madi: When we started out, we didn't really know that we were gonna come here. It wasn't, like, our goal to come to the Capitol and all that.
Ashlyn: Our main goal now, with everything that we've been doing, is that we're trying to create a task force to come together and look at and evaluate this bill and find the most effective way to implement it into our schools. What we know that can actually happen, or the most promise we can get, is for someone to actually evaluate the law because it hasn't been enforced.
I think the farther we go, the more people will, like, understand and the more people will want to be educated, other than just in Texas.
The PSA aired on a local station for the first time while the group were driving back home from Austin. Since beginning their project, the girls have learned a lot about how to help friends and classmates who think they might be in a dangerous relationship
Ashlyn: Some people have asked us for help. A girl walked up to me and she asked for like a list of things to look out for. She was like, "So I heard you're talking about teen dating violence," and I explained it to her, and she was like, "Okay can I have a list?"
Before this, it wouldn't be a conversation I'd be comfortable having with people, but now that I know all about it and I know how much it affects people, I felt really good because I know I'm helping her get through this.
Madi: I've learned a lot. I've learned stuff like that, and that you need to do what's best for you, no matter what the other person says. And that's pretty much the biggest thing I've learned. I'm not really like, when I work in groups, I pretty much state my opinion, but if somebody doesn't really approve of it, then I'll just kind of back off. So it's kind of taught me to stand up for myself. And it'll be a big help when we start dating.
The girls are currently preparing for their upcoming Destination Imagination competition—the original reason for creating the PSA—and are watching as the new teen dating violence bill makes its way through the Texas Legislature.
As far as the future goes after that, each of the girls has different goals for what they want to be when they grow up, and some envision careers in politics.
Joy: I either wanna be a dermatologist or an orthopedist.
Anna: I really wanna be a criminal psychologist from Harvard.
Ashlyn: I wanna be either a defense attorney or a lawyer.
Autumn: I would like to be a governor and be the first Lady President. And then I'll turn it into a dictatorship!
Hannah Smothers is a freelance writer. She blogs for Texas Monthly and has written for The Cut and The Hairpin.
Image courtesy of Kim Ellgass