Putting the brakes on teen dating violence


The girls chuckled, preparing for their skit.

The skit is serious in nature, but a little bit of laughter helped ease their anxiety.

Danah Sullivan, 15, was acting as the boyfriend in the scenario, while Mikayla Zupuis, 16, was the girlfriend.

The two were pretending to be riding in a car. Mikayla was driving.

Suddenly, a text came through on Mikayla's phone.

"Who's this?" Danah asked. "Who's Alex?"

"She's a girl from my psychology class," Mikayla replied, jovially. "We have plans tonight."

"No, you're hanging out with me tonight," Danah shot back, her voice rising. "I own you, so you're not going anywhere."

Stunned, Mikayla defended herself, announcing that Danah didn't own her.

With that, the argument became physical. Danah tried choking Mikayla, who swerved off the road and crashed as a result.

This is an example teen dating violence.


Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month

Though the interlude was brief, it has lasting effects.

According to a 2001 study published by the Journal of American Medical Studies, teens in violent relationships are at a greater risk for substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior and further domestic violence.

Half of those teens who are victims of both dating violence and rape attempt suicide, the study concluded.

"Anecdotally, we have both seen a student's ability to be successful in school be terribly affected if they are a victim, especially if there is previous trauma," said Deb Knapman, a licensed clinical social worker who works with students at Mt. Hope High School.

To raise awareness and combat teen dating violence, a girls' group at Mt. Hope High School is producing several skits about the topic, which will be broadcast throughout the day on the Husky News Network for the month of February. Advocates of the cause have designated that month to raising awareness about it.

"We're hoping that students learn more about it and take steps to prevent it," said Alex Neris, 16, who's working alongside Danah and Mikayla.

"You should know when he starts to treat you like property and control you, that it's not a good relationship," Danah added. "You should never be treated like anything but a person."

Teen relationships at Mt. Hope are common, but what goes on between a couple is largely private, Danah said. If there is an issue of abuse, the only ones who might know about it are the victim's best friends.

"She'll just say that nothing is going on," Alex said. "It's embarrassing to admit you're being abused by your boyfriend."

Instances of teen dating violence are not common at the high school, according to Colleen Powers, facilitator of the girls' group. But they do happen.

"More often than not, students will know about an instance of abuse before adults do," Ms. Knapman said.

Teen dating violence isn't just physical, Ms. Powers said. It's also emotional, verbal, mental and sexual. The girls' skits will encompass all those aspects.

"Students often don't know how to respond when a friend is in an abusive relationship," Ms. Knapman said. "We are teaching them how to listen and offer emotional support."


YES to success

The girls' group — YES (Youth Experiencing Success) — is directed by Ms. Powers, a member of the high school faculty. The group started out two years ago as a project targeting at-risk youth, helping them to develop healthy relationships, empower themselves and increase self-esteem.

"They've been identified as at-risk based on a variety of reasons, such as home life or recommendations from their guidance counselor," Ms. Powers said.

The program hosts about 20 girls a week, and is funded by a Bristol Warren Education Foundation Grant, which covers supplies and possible field trips.

In order for students to participate, their parents must sign off on a permission slip, and understand that the group fosters an environment of privacy.

"It's a safe place," Ms. Powers said. "They know that what is discussed here, stays here, to an extent."

While dating violence is discussed in general in the students' health classes, that environment is often anxiety-producing for someone in an abusive relationship, Ms. Powers said.

"Those classes are co-ed," she said. "And we're trying to give them another place that they can talk about things safely.

"We reinforce what's taught in health class, but what's discussed here is confidential."


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