In tackling teen dating violence, Safe Futures asks teachers to be mentors

Even as results from Safe Futures’ ongoing and regionwide youth survey continue to flow in, officials already are noticing some troubling trends.

About one-third of the 1,600 students, for example, said they have dated someone who either yelled at them, threatened them, humiliated them or tried to control where they could go or whom they could hang out with.

Another 15 percent reported being forced to do something sexual at least once, and 20 percent said a partner had tried to control them via technology in some way.

Perhaps most surprising?

One in every five students said they couldn’t think of an adult they would talk to if they were experiencing violence in a dating relationship.

In its latest initiative, Safe Futures is working with a few area schools to address all of these issues. Fittingly, the project is happening during a month known for Valentine’s Day but also is designated Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.

At the three involved schools — Bacon Academy in Colchester, Griswold High School and the New London Science and Technology Magnet High School — students already are enrolled in "advisory" classes.

The classes occur with varying frequency at each school, but in general they give teachers time to serve as mentors to small groups of students. Sometimes they discuss academic goals. Other times, they tackle other issues that can affect teens.

This month, with the help of a mini-lesson plan developed by Safe Futures, the students and their mentors are learning about teen dating violence.

To begin the class, students are introduced to the topic and asked to take Safe Futures’ survey, which is an update to its last such survey from 2008.

They then watch a short video, produced by L.I. Against Domestic Violence, that depicts how quickly cute social media posts and text messages can become controlling and start to affect a teen’s life. Afterward, they’re asked to highlight the types of controlling behaviors they saw and, when applicable, give examples of such behaviors from their own experiences.

From there, the students break into small groups to analyze the signs of equality in relationships, including open communication, trust, shared responsibility and respect. Again, they have to think critically as they’re asked to complete the sentence, “One thing from the equality wheel that I could work on to improve relationships in my life is ...”

Ultimately, the goal is not only to address a topic that clearly is affecting students, but also to help them see their teachers as people they can confide in. That’s according to Kris Wraight, associate director of prevention education and restorative practices for Safe Futures.

“Yeah, we can come into the schools and do our programs, but our programs are temporary,” Wraight said. “If 22 percent of students, almost a quarter, don’t feel they have anyone to turn to, even if you went into work because you’re passionate about math ... you could be that one adult who they could turn to. You could make that difference.”

At Griswold High, a 50-minute afternoon period has been reserved for something called the Wolverine Enrichment Block, which functions a bit like college professors’ office hours, for several years running. But this year, Mondays are getting special treatment: There are rotating mentor Mondays, inquiring minds Mondays and academic advisory Mondays.

According to Associate Principal Marceline Macrino, educators met in the summer to figure out how best to use the new start-of-the-week opportunity. Among the topics they decided were most important was teen dating violence.

When Safe Futures asked if Griswold would participate in its survey, Griswold officials accepted and in turn asked if they additionally could center a Monday lesson on teen dating violence. That’s how the mini-lesson was born.

Macrino said 10th- and 11th-graders went through the course Feb. 5 and the rest of the school attended it this past Monday. And while some teachers are adjusting to the role of mentor and some students are offering tips to improve the Monday sessions, Macrino said feedback largely has been positive.

“I really do believe in this and think it’s as important as making sure our kids get the academics,” she said, noting that students in unhealthy relationships may have trouble focusing. “You’ve got to take care of basic needs first, and emotional well-being.”

If you need help with an unhealthy or abusive relationship, call Safe Futures' free and confidential hotline, (860) 701-6000.

l.boyle@theday.com

Other Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month initiatives

Other Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month initiatives

Safe Futures has been working with local chapters of STARS, or Students Teaching About Responsible Sexuality, which is a Planned Parenthood-led group that teaches youth how to help their peers make positive sexual decisions. Soon, some students who belong to STARS will get a tour of Safe Futures and their own crash-course in the way power and control can show up in teen dating relationships.

On Feb. 24, in conjunction with Safe Futures, Shiloh New London will host a teen dating violence awareness event open to all teenagers and community members. Participants will learn about the red flags of abuse and how to set up healthy boundaries in relationships.

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