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Trends in teen dating violence prevention in California

Blog post

Lisa Fujie Parks, the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence’s Prevention Program Manager, spoke about trends in teen dating violence prevention in California on January 31, 2012 at a panel discussion at Wallenberg High School in San Francisco, sponsored by Project Youth Safety, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the California Adolescent Health Collaborative, and INOBTR.

1) The good news – and there is much good news – is that there is growing recognition of the prevalence and harm of dating abuse in a variety of sectors across the state and across the country. The distinctive dynamics of dating abuse along with harmful social norms (such as the notion that what happens in a relationship is no one else’s business) make it one of the most overlooked forms of violence. But we are making progress. 

Awareness building has been an important tool for helping communities to recognize dating abuse and its harms. Communities across the state and country continue to promote February as Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month (TDVAPM) to elevate stakeholders’ understanding of the issues and solutions, increase support for prevention initiatives, and plant seeds for future efforts. 

Our progress is in part due to these ongoing awareness efforts over many years. It is also in part because there is now greater understanding of the health impacts of dating abuse (immediate and long-term) as well as recognition that dating abuse, like bullying, has an insidious way of influencing the broader school environment and distracting students from their focus on learning.

2) The school environment continues to be recognized as an ideal and important environment for addressing dating abuse. Schools have a unique role to play in addressing warning signs among students before behaviors escalate, protecting the safety of targeted students, and helping to ensure a positive school climate and safe learning environment for everyone.

3) A newer trend is the greater recognition that awareness building events and one-time education sessions are insufficient for preventing dating abuse. One-time classroom presentations and even multi-session classroom education are beneficial but certainly not sufficient for adequately supporting young people in developing the attitudes and skills to have safe and healthy, violence-free relationships.

Many of our members and allies have been providing prevention education in schools and other community settings for years. Prevention education teaches about the roots of violence, including restrictive gender norms, characteristics of healthy relationships, and skills to manage emotions, respect boundaries, etc. And this education is very valuable. But it’s not enough. 

We collectively need to push beyond the notion that education through verbal persuasion is sufficient for changing behavior, as if the right set of words alone can change attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that are deeply entrenched in long-held social norms.

4) Over the last decade, as more and more stakeholders have recognized that a one-time message is necessary but not sufficient, support for multi-component interventions that go far beyond awareness and education has grown. This approach involves youth, parents, schools and community partners working together to prevent dating abuse through a “whole school” approach in both middle schools and high schools, through curricular, extra-curricular and school climate improvement efforts, youth leadership opportunities, as well as age-appropriate support services on-site and off-site. 

That’s why our teen dating violence policy goal at the Partnership is to promote communityenvironments that support safe and healthy youth relationships. Young people need supportive environments (in addition to messages). And while young people can and should be active participants in shaping community environments, adults have greater ability and responsibility for creating those environments. Environments set the stage for our attitudes and behaviors. We are all influenced by our environments – youth and adults alike. 

The school environment is shaped by influencers of that environment, including teachers, coaches, counselors, administrators, healthcare providers, as well as, of course, peers, parents and other caring adults. Within the school environment, influencers can make the desired behavior desirable, reinforce and reward the desired behavior, redirect the undesired behavior early on, harness peer pressure through popular opinion leaders, and so on. In other words, within the school environment, influencers can challenge the harmful social norms that contribute to dating abuse, and support new norms in which youth and adults work together to promote healthy relationships, and everyone stands up as an upstander for healthy relationships instead of standing by as a bystander to dating abuse. 

5) To sustain these “whole school” multi-component interventions, middle schools and high schools are beginning to adopt dating abuse school policies and procedures. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District passed a landmark teen dating violence policy in 2011 that had been in the works for a decade. Unfortunately, the policy was passed several weeks after a young woman named Cindi Santana was murdered in the cafeteria of her high school in South Gate. Her tragic death is a call to action to schools and communities everywhere.

Now, we are seeing more and more school districts – galvanized by the LAUSD example – that are convening youth, parents, school board members and other policy makers to take a closer look at current policies and programs, and putting the wheels in motion to improve what’s there and address gaps.

6) Finally, we are also seeing a growing trend of greater engagement among prevention advocates, including young prevention advocates, in the policy advocacy process. More and more local domestic violence agencies and partners are engaging youth as advocates (as well as peer educators) who organize among peers, within their schools, and in the broader community. The Partnership has a growing Teen Dating Violence Policy Sub-Committee, and more young advocates participate in our annual Legislative Action Day in Sacramento each year.
These trends toward multi-component “whole school” interventions and the adoption of policies and procedures to support and sustain them are exiting and promising. As more communities in California catch on to these trends – through our continued, collective leadership and advocacy – we will make great strides toward nurturing community environments that support safe and healthy youth relationships and prevent dating abuse