When it comes to allocating resources to improve student safety at school, teen dating violence prevention may not get the same attention as other programs or training sessions.
But violence and abuse are unfortunate realities in many teen relationships, and school officials should be familiar with steps they can take to detect and respond to those problems on their campuses.
Jordyn Lawson of the Genesis Women’s Shelter recently spoke about teen dating violence at the 13th annual Conference on Crimes Against Women (CCAW). Lawson says preventing teen dating violence starts with educating your students on the nature of relationship abuse.
For instance, the actions of the abuser in a relationship typically escalate in a way that may not make it easy for victims to recognize or accept that they’re in an abusive relationship.
“You won’t know on the first date you’re with an abuser,” Lawson explains. “You have to be aware of how comfortable you feel with this person each time you engage with them. Know where your boundaries are, communicate those boundaries and ask yourself, ‘Are they respectful of those boundaries?’”
Lawson says what makes abusers abusive is a sense of entitlement, which she describes as the mentality of “I have the right to punish people who don’t give me what I want when I want it.”
“You have to address the entitlement right off the bat,” Lawson says. “So you have to explain that, yeah, not getting what you want sucks, but it’s part of adulthood. That conversation is important. The biggest way we can combat domestic violence is to teach young boys and young girls that a relationship doesn’t mean you’re entitled to anything. A relationship is a partnership.”
Understanding Different Types of Abuse: The First Step Toward Dating Violence Prevention
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines dating violence as “the physical, sexual, psychological, or emotional aggression within a dating relationship, including stalking.” The better school officials and students become at defining abuse the better off a campus will be.
According to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, 1.5 million high school students experience physical abuse from a dating partner each year.
Lawson discussed three general forms of abuse and gave examples of each (included below). She says the key to identifying behavior that crosses the line is the reaction of the partner. If a person’s partner is clearly not comfortable with a certain behavior, that person should stop.
Forms of verbal and emotional abuse can include:
- Constant criticism, putting down or name-calling
- Yelling and cursing
- Playing mind games
- Embarrassing or humiliating your partner
- Guilt trips
- The silent treatment
- Spreading rumors or telling secrets
- Lying and manipulation
- Insulting your partner’s race or heritage
- Damaging your partner’s personal property
- Intimidating and making threats
- “The look”
- Play fighting that crosses the line or that is done to show strength
- Extreme jealousy
- Nefarious use of then internet and technology
Forms of physical abuse can include:
- Pushing or shoving
- Hitting, slapping or punching
- Pulling hair
- Holding someone down or holding their arm so they can’t walk away
- Throwing, smashing things, showing weapons or destroying property/punching walls or other objects
- Following or stalking
Forms of sexual abuse can include:
- Threatening to break up with someone or spread rumors if they refuse sexual acts
- Threatening to hurt the other person or someone they care about if they refuse sexual acts
- Lying to or manipulating someone to get him/her to agree to sexual behaviors
- Ripping or tearing clothes
- Unwanted grabbing/touching of someone’s body
- Forcing someone to take off their clothes
- Sexual harassment
- Birth control
- Sex when a person is too drunk
How School Officials Can Spot Teen Dating Violence
There are many signs of abuse, and schools should train employees who come in contact with students each day to notice those signs.
Victims of teen dating violence may become isolated from friends or appear anxious to upset their partner. Lawson describes the situation as the victim’s life revolving around the abuser’s schedule, friends, needs and wants.
Changes of behavior are also significant.
“All behavior is purposeful; it has a reason behind it,” Lawson explains. “When behavior changes, you should ask about it. [Say something] like, ‘I noticed you’re not talking to so and so’, or ‘You’re dressing differently’. Teenage years are years of change, so it could just be a fad, but if you assume that then you’re missing an opportunity.”
When it comes to identifying abusive students, school officials should know that abusers are often publicly charming with many friends.
“We have to be aware of the idea of social engineering,” Lawson says. “Abusers will work hard to have a good image in the community so that when abuse is reported people will doubt the victim. So be aware of the dual personality.”
Abusers may also not readily take responsibility for their actions, easily become aggressive with others and may be fiercely competitive.
“There’s nothing wrong with competitiveness, but if someone has to win all of the time in everything they do then that could be a sign,” Lawson says.
Other potential signs of an abuser are students who push boundaries or rules, find loopholes or can’t stand criticism.
Having witnessed or experienced domestic violence in the home also makes people more likely to become an abuser, though of course not all abuse victims go on to abuse others.
How Should Schools Respond to Suspected Teen Dating Violence?
Lawson says that if a student tells you they are being abused, believe them and tell them they are not alone. Listen to the victim’s story without judging or overly reacting. They should know they have the right to protect themselves and report the abuse. They should also understand that relationship violence often escalates.
“You shouldn’t have any loud or obvious reactions, because the victim may internalize those as fear and shame,” Lawson says. “It’s important to tell the victim that we all make mistakes in relationships, but that doesn’t mean the abuser is justified. I’m going to ask if we can add more members to the team. Ask the victim, ‘Are you okay with me telling a counselor about this, or a favorite teacher?’”
Lawson says the abuser may also need emotional support in addition to gaining certain skills and receiving therapy or trauma support.
“This teen is struggling with something, so he or she deserves a chance at healthiness just like the victim,” Lawson says.
Still, consequences must be given to the abuser and enforced. Lawson says a lot of times consequences are laid out then walked back as time goes on.
Schools should also develop a safety plan for the victim, although Lawson admits that developing safety plans for K-12 students can be challenging because the abuser likely attends the same school as the victim and may even be in some of the same classes.
“Teens don’t have as much ability to control and change things as adults,” Lawson says.
Overall, schools should establish a robust set of programs and resources to commit themselves to teen dating violence prevention. The basics of teen dating violence should be discussed with students early on in their time at campus and multiple times thereafter.
Students should understand the problems with rape culture and the idea that abuse and intimidation is “just a joke.”
Only after school officials make an impactful, sustained effort to improve every level of their campus can they be confident that they’ve adequately responded to teen dating violence.
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