A Fairmont student interviewed in this column wished to remain anonymous. Out of respect for her privacy, The Flyer will refer to her as “Jane Doe.”
On March 5, 2007, Cleveland high school student Johanna Orozco was shot in the face by a young man who had raped her at knifepoint just months before. For the sexual assault, the man served a total of four days in jail and was put on house arrest. During that time, he ambushed Orozco outside her car with a shotgun. But this was not simply a random attack. Orozco’s shooter was her ex-boyfriend.
Orozco survived the gunshot that ended a cycle of violence in her relationship, but what could the community and school have done to prevent the conflict from escalating to such extremes? The Centers for Disease Control reports that a quarter of the adolescent population of the United States has experienced some form of verbal, emotional or physical abuse, so communities across the country should be asking themselves the same question.
Teens experiencing dating abuse walk among us in the very halls of Fairmont High School. Some of them are our classmates, team members and friends. Yet understanding the emotional turmoil of abuse is nearly impossible for people who haven’t faced the same situation. Many still ask, “Why don’t they just leave the relationship?” but the issue seldom is that simple.
“The hardest part is admitting that the one you ‘love’ is hurting you,” said Jane Doe, a Fairmont junior who stayed in an emotionally abusive relationship for more than a year. “He was the only one I had left. I’d given him almost everything physically and emotionally. I didn’t want to admit that the things he said actually hurt me, but looking back on it, I feel so stupid that I let it go on.”
How Fairmont tackles the issue
Schools have the chance to be smart and proactive about dating abuse. Prevention starts with education, and Fairmont High School is on the right track. In response to Ohio’s 2009 “Tina Croucher Act,” the school has incorporated lessons on healthy relationships into its Health curriculum.
“That kind of goes with our overall philosophy: if you’re a student having difficulty in your life, there are people and resources here to help you,” said Fairmont Principal Dan Von Handorf. “We have a vast array of resources here to help kids: counseling services, different county programs. If kids are having problems, they should talk to their advisory teacher because they know the right person to refer that to.”
To fulfill the education requirement, Fairmont brings in guest speakers from the Montgomery County Combined Health Services to discuss what dating violence looks like and how to handle it if you or someone you know is involved. Fairmont also has trained professionals at school to handle such issues. Jennifer Smithhart, a trained law enforcement and resource officer, has an office in Fairmont’s Central Unit and speaks to Health classes about abuse. “She does a great job of educating kids and at the same time she knows police protocol and makes sure we follow guidelines there, too,” said Von Handorf.
Going the extra mile with prevention
Fully addressing the issue requires exceeding the state minimum requirements for dating education. Lauren Taylor coordinates the Indiana Bloomington Middle Way House (which provides education on domestic and sexual violence and rape crisis) and believes the most effective prevention starts with education at the grade, middle and high school level. “Have people know their rights in a relationship,” said Taylor. That includes the right to say “no” to one’s partner, seek help, and leave the relationship.
Jane Doe believes potential victims need to understand they have free will to leave the abuser. “The victim may feel an obligation to their abuser. The victim needs to realize that no physical or emotional bondage is too big of an obligation to be broken.”
Apart from empowering potential victims, anti-violence education may be the mirror that makes a potential or current abuser observe and change his or her own actions. “It starts with the dynamic,” said Susan Gottschalk, the Artemis Center director of the Family Violence Collaborative. “Explain that abuse is about power and control.”
That said, schools must also teach potential batterers alternative, healthy ways to get what they want or need out of a relationship. “When we do batterer interventions, we often have people ask, ‘Why didn’t I learn this in school?’ ” said Gottschalk.
The cycles of violence often go unnoticed or unchallenged, and shedding light on them at a young age can begin to help students break the cycle. But is this enough?
“Schools should create atmospheres where teens know they can go forward and ask for help and know what will happen,” said Nancy Grigsby, the Ohio Domestic Violence Network’s economic empowerment director. Too often, abusers like the one who nearly took Johanna Orozco’s life go unchallenged by communities that turn a blind eye to domestic violence, or even blame the victims for the perpetrators’ actions. Survivors who come forward about abuse risk isolation or repercussions from the abuser.
Spotting abuse before it’s too late
“The majority of people don’t tell anyone, and if they do, most likely it’s a friend,” said Taylor. With this in mind, one can see where the school board’s job becomes the entire student body’s job. Vigilance requires knowing the warning signs of abusive relationships, and all too often they are right under our noses. Tell-tale signs in abusers include excessive jealousy, unpredictable mood swings, controlling behavior, isolating the victim, public insults or humiliation of their partner, intimidation, not accepting when a partner says “no” and wanting to get too serious too quickly. If one of the partners has a history of abuse or violence, the warning bells should immediately begin to ring.
For victims, the signs of abuse may not come in the form of visible physical injuries. Victims often cancel plans with friends, give up things that matter to them, become isolated from people close to them and, in some cases, exhibit physical bruises or scars. “If your friend is slowly falling away from you into an abusive relationship, please talk to them,” said Jane Doe.
For Doe, the signs were not so clear. “He never hit me and that was the worst part. Maybe if he had hit me, I could have realized what was happening sooner than I had.” Yet she still felt the stranglehold of the possessive relationship. “I wasn’t able to live my life because he needed me to tell him everything I was doing at every second of every day. I couldn’t breathe in the end.”
Abuse of drugs or alcohol can also be red flags for abuse in a relationship, but watching for warning signs is only part of our responsibility. We must also take action.
‘They need you more than they know’
Offering support to a friend facing dating violence is the first step. Friends and family of people who are experiencing dating violence are in a position to provide comfort and emotional support, but they should always encourage the victims to talk to a counselor (Fairmont has eight counselors trained to handle dating violence) and even offer to go with them if they don’t feel comfortable.
For the concerned friend of a victim – or an abuser – the hardest part can be finding the right words to say. Make sure the person being abused knows your friendship is unconditional and you will listen, not judge. So many times survivors of dating violence blame themselves. Let them know it isn’t their fault. Encourage honesty, but remember he or she may have experienced traumatic abuse and may find it difficult to open up about the relationship. Make your specific concerns clear and tell the friend that the abuser’s actions have no excuse.
Most importantly, try to bolster the friend’s self-esteem and don’t give up on him or her. “They need you more than they know,” said Doe. “It’s easier to just turn the other cheek, but it isn’t right. If I hadn’t lost so many friends, I might’ve been able to end the relationship faster.”
If students see abuse, they can confront the perpetrator peacefully, or enlist help from teachers or counselors. The job of keeping students safe from dating violence rests with individuals as well as an observant, responsive and supportive school community. Students can take the issue into their own hands by organizing campaigns to tackle dating or domestic violence in their community. A group of teens in Massachusetts did just that with SeeItAndStopIt.org. The organization provides facts, explanations and stories from real relationships, as well as tool kits to help people start their own projects.
School officials and other concerned individuals can protect survivors of abuse by helping them develop a “safety plan.” Artemis and other battered women’s shelters provide these risk assessments through their hotline. “The safety plan can vary and depend on the situation. The victim should guide the process,” said Gottschalk. The plan can involve getting a protection order, which Ohio extended to teens in 2009, or having a detailed plan of action in case of a crisis. Gottschalk believes these can save lives if done correctly.
Acting as a community
Both genders fall victim to abuse, so both men and women should feel responsible for promoting healthy relationships. Having strong, honorable and compassionate male role models is vital to the healthy development of young men. So many batterers were once victims of abuse themselves. Coaching Boys into Men (CBIM) tries to engage men, specifically athletic coaches, to teach their athletes and sons respectful attitudes and behavior, both on and off the field. Coaches should check out CBIM’s Playbook and Coaches’ Kit or go to www.coachescorner.org/ if they’re interested in incorporating these ideas into their training.
The victims and perpetrators of dating abuse come from every race, ethnicity, class, religion, gender and sexual orientation. That means every community, especially our school community, is responsible for confronting the violence and providing support for its survivors.
Johanna Orozco now tours the country speaking words of encouragement to other survivors, but her face remains disfigured from the attack that could have been stopped. Let Orozco’s story be a reminder of what can happen when communities don’t respond.
“If someone would have told me two years ago that I would be the victim of emotional abuse, I would laugh because that could never happen to me,” said Doe. “But it can, and it did.”
Resources on dating abuse:
YWCA’s 24-hour domestic violence emergency hotline: 937-222-7233
Ohio Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-934-9840
For information and advice on identifying (and leaving) an abusive relationship, visit http://blog.loveisrespect.org/