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Assembly Committee hears compelling testimony on successful ways to reduce teen dating violence

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In observance of Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, Assembly Member Fiona Ma, Chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Domestic Violence, hosted a hearing entitled: Teen dating violence: current trends, youth perspectives, and family-school-community solutions. The hearing was attended by Assembly Members Susan Bonilla, Betsy Butler, Ricardo Lara, Dr. Richard Pan, Paul Fong and Norma Torres and 100 audience members. The hearing also receivednoteworthy media coverage. Legislators heard testimony from over 20 people who offered personal insights and lessons from model programs, including youth leaders, prominent researchers, coaches, parents, prevention educators and advocates.

Speakers included Beth Hassett, WEAVE; Dr. Elizabeth Miller; Nancy Bagnato, California Department of Public Health; Melodie Kruspodin, Peace Over Violence; Lawrence Hall, Mesa Verde High School; Stephanie Pappas, California Department of Education; Mary Struhs, Sacramento Unified School District; Ernest Brown, WEAVE; Tom McKenna, Rosemont High School; Debbie Lee, Family Violence Prevention Fund; and Lisa Fujie Parks, California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.

Dr. Elizabeth Miller testified as a private citizen who is an adolescent and young adult physician and researcher on adolescent relationship abuse. She stated that, “Adolescent relationship abuse is far too common and has a profound impact on the health of young people.” She shared a story of Maria, a 16 year old young woman whom she interviewed several years ago: “Maria was already in counseling for depression and suicidal thoughts: ‘It got so bad, I tried to kill myself.  I tried jumping off the bridge, and stuff like that cause I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.  I stopped talking to all my friends. I had a ton of friends, and I wasn’t allowed to talk to any of them.’ Dr. Miller explained that Maria spoke of an intensely controlling relationship that had started out fun and romantic: “He wanted to spend all the time together with her. He then began to monitor her activity, where she was, who she was hanging out with, what she was wearing. As he would get mad at her for talking to her friends, she became increasingly isolated. He would put her down, call her names, tell her that she was not worth anything and she was lucky he would put up with her, since no one else would.”

Dr. Miller drew correlations between teen dating violence, depression, suicidality, disordered eating, substance abuse, sexually-transmitted infections and pregnancy, as well as poor academic performance: “Many of the youth we’ve interviewed described how their controlling partners kept them from going to school, convinced them that no one at school cared about them, and unfortunately, grades plummeted and several of these youth had dropped out of school. This underscores a critical point, the importance of starting education and conversations about healthy relationships early, and certainly no later than middle school when youth are starting to develop their ideas about intimate relationships.”

Several youth leaders spoke about the value of participating in dating violence prevention programs. Mesa Verde High School student and football player Lawrence Hall shared a proud social victory: “A friend of mine was calling his girlfriend bad names over and over because she spilled his milk. I pulled him aside and told him what I learned from the Coaching Boys Into Menprogram. He apologized to his girlfriend. I felt good because I knew I was being a role model. Using my voice, I made a difference.”

Melodie Kruspodin spoke of her experience as the former President of Students Together Organizing Peace, a club spear-headed by Peace Over Violence at her high school: “We were bonded by our goal to end relationship violence in our lives and the lives of our peers. People could relate to us because we were students just like them.” She spoke of the opportunities that prevention programs offer youth: “Teen dating violence prevention education programs offer opportunities to engage youth, build their leadership, and help them develop healthy relationship skills. The educators who came into our school taught us and listened to us, and made sure that we knew that we were people, no matter our age, with real problems. They knew that healthy and engaged youth become healthy and engaged adults. Peace Over Violence gave me the tools to be a successful, strong and empathetic person, and taught me that not only does my voice matter, but it is necessary to be heard.”

Lawmakers also heard from members of California’s network of domestic violence and sexual assault service providers and partner organizations, who have been supporting youth to end teen dating violence for over two decades. These organizations provide expertise and valuable resources to youth, families, schools and other youth-serving organizations. Model programs such asCoaching Boys into Men, Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships and MyStrength Clubs were highlighted as successful and cost-effective prevention efforts. These programs promote healthy gender norms and teach skills to support respectful relationships, like boundary skills, conflict management, communication and negotiation, as well as how to be an “upstander” – someone who stands up as a positive role model. 

Stephanie Pappas with the California Department of Education noted that the state’s fiscal crisis has led to reduced funding for counselling services and programs to address student safety and violence in schools. But she also stated that there are many low-cost ways for schools to fulfill their obligation to ensure a safe learning environment, and emphasized that, “Schools need to think of teen dating violence prevention, not as an add-on, but as something that is integrated into the curriculum at every grade level.”

Attention was also drawn to the significant number of communities in California that are not engaged in addressing teen dating violence. Tracie Stafford, a survivor of teen and adult domestic violence and spokesperson for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence stated that, “We need to connect the dots between respect among peers and respect in relationships. We teach children about respecting their peers, but we are not teaching them enough about respect in relationships.” Melissa Murphy, a prevention educator from Tri-Valley Haven stated that, “Many schools are still not open to addressing these issues, even after a recent murder-suicide of two youth from our community.” Connie Lann, a parent who lost her daughter to a dating violence murder pleaded for everyone to do more to end dating and domestic violence. “I am here because my daughter is not. It’s been 10 years since she was taken from this world by her boyfriend. 10 years, and still so much is the same. There is still so much that needs to be done.”

Lisa Fujie Parks with the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence noted that that there are hundreds of successful school-community partnerships across the state, but well-intended efforts by parents, educators and advocates can easily be undone: “Take for example, the high school where the star football player is accused of dating violence but administrators choose to look away because they want him to be able to play on Friday night. Silence and inaction on the part of adults is harmful and dangerous, and sends the message that teen dating violence is acceptable. We need to acknowledge the pervasiveness and harm of dating violence and change the way we support youth on these issues in family, school and community environments.”

Assembly Member Pan noted that, “Youth are our most valuable resource,” and asked: “How do we work with youth to create a movement? When youth take ownership, that’s when we will create long-lasting change.” Assembly Member Ma concluded that, “Now more than ever, our state needs new innovative programs and role models to promote healthy relationships. A multi-pronged approach is needed.”
The California Partnership to End Domestic Violence and our nearly 200 member agencies and individuals look to our legislators’ leadership and offer our commitment to continue to partner for a better future for California’s youth.

The hearing can be viewed online (starts 8 minutes into the recording).

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