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Teen dating violence prevention through policy change: Opportunities for advocacy at the local and state levels

Blog post

Below is the Executive Summary included in the proceedings.


As a result of advocacy efforts over many years, there is growing public awareness and a larger circle of stakeholders engaged in teen dating violence (TDV) prevention, and a shifting tide with respect to TDV prevention policy.   
More and more, TDV is recognized as an important issue requiring public policy attention at the national, state and local levels. Public policies and organizational practices affect the broad conditions that shape TDV. They can also help to influence environments such as schools and other youth-serving organizations to better support respectful and equitable nonviolent relationships. TDV has, in fact, been somewhat on the policy agenda for several years in California, and we are recognized for having sold TDV policies in the civil legal arena. There are numerous organizations engaged in TDV prevention education with youth and a small number of communities have enacted local school district TDV policies. As a result of these efforts and national momentum, new policy opportunities are emerging.

Members of the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence (the Partnership) have both catalyzed and tracked these emerging opportunities, and identified TDV prevention policy as an important area for collective focus and Partnership leadership: 

  • In the spring of 2009, the Partnership facilitated a prevention policy consensus building process with our statewide Public Policy and Research Committee. Support for prevention education in public schools and other youth serving organizations was a clear and strong area of consensus. 
  • Also in the spring of 2009, the Partnership completed its 5-year Prevention Plan, which identified advocacy for public policies and organizational practices to prevent domestic violence as a goal, with a focus on TDV prevention.
  • In the fall of 2009, the Partnership conducted a policy priorities survey with our member organizations. TDV was one of the top areas of emerging interest, within which school-based policy and systems change was the strongest area of concern.

In response to this sequence of events, the Partnership convened two events in Sacramento on March 22, 2010. The first event was a TDV Prevention Policy Panel. Over 100 leaders from domestic violence prevention advocacy organizations and allied groups from throughout California convened to learn about the national and state context for addressing TDV and emerging opportunities for local and state policy change. All aspects of the panel were very highly rated by participants on the evaluation survey, and over 95% of participants reported that as a result of their participation, their capacity to advocate for TDV prevention had been strengthened.

On the same day, 10 youth from 4 cities in California who work to prevent TDV in partnership with 5 organizations participated in a Youth Leadership in State-Level TDV Prevention meeting, also convened by the Partnership. The objectives of the meeting were to: 1) explore what should be done to prevent TDV in the area of school-based efforts; and, 2) explore what actions can be taken to create ongoing communication channels between youth leaders and state-level TDV prevention stakeholders. Youth leaders appreciated the opportunity to build relationships, learn from each other, and inform the Partnership’s work. Participants requested additional opportunities to build relationships and increase engagement in local and state level policy work. The Partnership gained significant insight from the youth leaders, and possible next steps were explored.

Key Themes

Several key themes emerged from the TDV Prevention Policy Panel and the Youth Leadership in State-Level TDV Prevention meeting:

Multiple prevention strategies are necessary. A single program is insufficient for addressing the multiple influences that shape young people’s dating behaviors. A comprehensive approach should include, but need not be limited to: working with teens directly; engaging teen influencers; implementing media and communication strategies; and changing organization and community-wide policy and environmental conditions. School-based prevention education should be integrated in curricular and extra-curricular activities and school climate improvement efforts – and not be limited to health class. All prevention strategies should be developmentally appropriate and culturally relevant. 

Middle school strategies are needed. The middle school years present an opportunity to promote healthy relationship skills at the time when pre-teens and young teens are curious about and beginning to explore dating relationships. Solid support during these years can promote developmental assets and resilience and counteract risk factors. 

Youth engagement and leadership is essential. Young people’s voice is critical to the success and relevance of prevention efforts at both the local and state levels. Youth have influence on other youth, especially older to younger youth. Popular culture and social media are opportune platforms for youth engagement. Youth are also powerful policy advocates who can educate adults about issues affecting their lives, and call for change. By engaging youth as leaders, young people and adults build their capacity for intergenerational partnerships and community change. 

Parent engagement and leadership is fundamental. Parents and guardians are a primary influence and source of modeling for their children, and a powerful influence on local policy and state legislation. Barriers to parent engagement can be overcome by linking TDV to other issues of concern such as academic achievement and social development, especially at moments of heightened interest such as the transition to middle school and to high school.

More data about TDV and what works to prevent it is needed. To raise TDV as an education and public health priority and make the case for strengthening TDV prevention programs and policies, good data is needed, including data about: a) community strengths and needs; b) the prevalence and dynamics of TDV (e.g., Youth Risk Behavior Survey data, and data that links TDV to academic achievement and health outcomes); and, c) what works to prevent TDV (e.g., program evaluation, case studies, etc.). 

Policy change at the local level is possible. Partnership members and allies can play a key role. Communities and school districts vary widely, and a school TDV policy needs to be crafted to fit the local context. At the same time, Federal and State of California duties and requirements related to TDV must be adhered to, and best practices for addressing the specific dynamics of abuse in the context of a dating relationship should be followed. For example, TDV policy can be integrated into existing school policies, though the issue needs to be called out distinctively and not be subsumed under bullying and/or or sexual harassment. Local policy advocacy can begin with small steps, such as informing policymakers about the problem and what is being done about it, passing local TDV Awareness and Prevention Month resolutions in February, and sharing successes. Advocacy is most successful when it is based in relationships of respect, trust, accountability and mutual support.

Statewide policy change is also necessary. California has a solid foundation of TDV state legislation in the civil legal arena. There is momentum throughout the country for states to adopt prevention-oriented legislation, and this would be a logical next step for California to pursue. State legislation should identify specific priorities without being overly prescriptive. Given the tough state budget climate, a solid policy agenda and a broad coalition of Partnership members and allies will be necessary for success. Some statewide objectives, such as making TDV prevention-focused resources widely accessible to schools, can be achieved through administrative advocacy.

A holistic approach links TDV prevention to other policy issues. While policies to sanction violence and abuse are still lacking and needed, there is greater recognition that these policies are insufficient in and of themselves for preventing TDV. A holistic approach emphasizes the importance of a safe and inclusive school environment in which respectful, equitable nonviolent relationships are taught, modeled and reinforced. This positive promotion approach links TDV prevention to other education initiatives, such as promoting positive behavior support and social-emotional learning. 

Collective effort makes all the difference. All of us can be effective change agents, but none of us can implement comprehensive dating abuse prevention strategies alone. Local task forces involving youth, parents, schools and youth advocacy and service organizations can be formed among people and organizations that recognize the need and are willing to take action. Success at the local and state levels can only be achieved through partnerships of multiple stakeholders pushing for change. Collective effort brings authenticity and relevance to policy strategies, and shifts the balance of power to achieve these changes.

Moving Forward

In 2009 and 2010, the Partnership assessed and responded to our members’ wisdom and interests and strengthened our capacity to lead TDV prevention policy advocacy in California, including our capacity to support youth leadership in policy advocacy. The next few years will be a time of great challenge and opportunity. At this juncture of heightened interest in policy action to address TDV, consensus-building and coalition-building are necessary among Partnership members and allies, issue experts and policymakers. Youth voice in the process is essential to ensuring that TDV policy moves in the direction of greater inclusion, equity and justice.

We encourage Partnership members and allies to continue to take action and expand efforts to organize and advocate for TDV prevention. We invite your continued participation and leadership in our various prevention and policy activities. Together we can craft and advance a policy agenda that will support schools and other youth-serving organizations in teaching, promoting, modeling, and reinforcing respectful and equitable nonviolent relationships.