Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month sparks conversation about healthy relationships

It was Christmas Eve, 2013, a time when one might imagine smoke wafting out of chimneys and holiday lights glowing through the snow in Blackman-Leoni Township, located 65 miles west of Detroit.

Nearby, however, there was another scene that was neither picturesque nor sentimental. Trapped under the ice of the Portage River, a tributary of the Grand River, lay the body of 19-year-old Kaley Brooks.

Brooks’ ex-boyfriend was suspected of her murder, but shot himself two days before she was found. According to police, Jackson had a history of domestic violence, and was supposed to start a prison sentence just one day before Brooks’s body was discovered.

Brooks’ story caught national media attention. But unlike Brooks, there are many other victims of teen dating violence who are invisible.

February marks the fourth year of Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. The goal of the month is to raise the issue in the public eye.

According to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, one-third of adolescent girls have experienced physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse by a partner.  Despite the alarmingly high incidence of dating violence, often it makes headlines only as a homicide, as in the case of Kaley Brooks.

Silence can have major repercussions. “There’s a lot of shame around the violence we perpetuate in our relationships,” said Kaern Kreyling, Urban’s counselor. Kreyling described how many unhealthy behaviors in relationships “are so normalized we don’t even recognize them as violent.”

Adolescence marks a period of sexual, emotional and social development. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, teens consume more than seven hours of media daily. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” says Marie Wilson, founder of The White House Project, in the film “Miss Representation,” which describes how women are portrayed in the entertainment and news media. Positive examples of relationships are important for teens, who are especially susceptible to outside influence on identity formation.

Dating violence is often delegitimized as kids just being kids. But a 2001 study of adults by Harvard researchers, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, found “younger age is a consistent risk factor for experiencing and perpetrating intimate partner violence.”

Intimate partner violence can take on subtler forms, like verbal abuse, intimidation, and even the abusive use of technology, said Kirsten DeFur, director of the Healthy Relationship Training Academy at the New York City Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, in an interview with the Legend.

“Recognizing abusive behaviors is one thing that individuals need to learn about,” said DeFur. She emphasized that it is essential that people “(recognize) abusive behaviors in another partner, but also in themselves.”

Schools can have a powerful impact. “The first thing to do is to educate,” said Charlotte Worsley, assistant head for student life at Urban. The aim of Urban is to create a culture in which healthy relationships are the norm, she added.

Leo Danzig (’16) agrees that the best approach is preventative. “It’s very hard to (remove) or fade emotional scarring that would be the result of teen dating violence,” said Danzig. Unfortunately, the topic of teen dating violence doesn’t come up in conversation with his friends, because it doesn’t feel relevant to their current lives, he said.

A 2005 study conducted by Teenage Research Unlimited found that roughly two-thirds of teens that were in abusive relationships never told others. In addition, according to a summary of the “Violence Against Women Act” of 2005, by the National Task Force to End Violence Against Women, “(a) desire for confidentiality and confusion about the law are two of the most significant barriers to youth seeking help with domestic or dating violence.”

Urban also tries to create an environment that promotes disclosure and inclusivity so that all students have a voice. If teasing becomes violent, Worsley said, she and other administrators are not afraid to step in. However, she is not always quick to involve herself. “You don’t want to re-victimize the victim,” says Worsley. “My goal is to empower people, because they’re going to have to do this on their own.”

In New York, the Healthy Relationship Training Academy’s work grows out of continual dialogue with teens. “Our programs are not just about us teaching information, (but they are) also about learning from (our) participants,” DeFur said. By giving teens the space to be part of the process, the organization helps establish a foundation for a conversation about dating violence that extends beyond the Academy.

“Student group organizations can really mobilize young people, but that student group having an adult ally … can really help make change happen,” DeFur explained. “If adults are working independently without the buy-in of the teens and of the young people, then they’re not necessarily going to be fulfilling the needs that they have, and vice versa.”

Setting an example for healthy relationships is a two-way street between teens and adults, Kreyling said, observing that “(p)art of the dark side of adulthood is a dishonesty.” She emphasized the importance of adults setting an example of honesty in their own lives, because of the trickle-down effect it has on teens.

“The more a human being becomes aware of themselves, the more power they have to make their own choices,” said Kreyling. “That’s where we really all become human, is when we really choose what we do and how we act. It’s really our only realm of power.”